The role of a producer is often undesirable to many young musicians. The arrogance and pretentiousness among many in this niche leads them to believe their creative power is limitless, and so therefore their songs can speak volumes without sophisticated production and mastering. They eventually learn otherwise, but usually not until their music aspirations appear hopeless. Once they realize the poor sound quality of their songs – which they attempt to defend by using mindless labels like “lo-fi” and “###-wave” – will not attract an audience beyond their friends, they either abandon the field entirely or, in some cases, will pursue another method. In the latter case, many will place emphasis almost entirely on the production instead, abandoning the songcraft that may have been adequate enough in the first place. This thin line between polished nothingness and rough-cut potential is fully evident, and the failure to capture the in-between is what leads to the demise of many projects and music aspirations in general. To find the perfect form of production that will accommodate the strengths of one’s songwriting is one of the most difficult endeavors in creating music.
The linearity of today’s hip-hop makes the abundance of “quality” producers around the age of 21 prevalent in that field, if only because the valued practices are rooted in repetition and computer-based gimmicks involving sampling. But in fields of rock, pop, electronic, etc., most of the employed producers are 40+-year-old veterans who have failed for years before succeeding. The reason for this extends beyond the fact that instrumentation is recorded instead of sampled (for the most part). Sound – whether it is borrowed or created personally – needs to be implemented cohesively regardless. But what many perceive as quality hip-hop may need no more than a five-second loop repeating 40 times, as long as the “flow” and “lyrical depth” resounds to a certain audience. This decreased dependence on the aspects of musical composition does not make hip-hop inferior by any means. It is just a different method of production, one that actually caters more to young tech-savvy entrepreneurs than grizzled veterans.
For styles of music that call for not only variation in the instrumentation, but also rapid structural and sonic shifts, there are rarely young producers that get it. Max Fishkin is one of them. Just 21, he has been making music for about a decade. Often his most experience comes from helping others; recently featured Ross Fish and David Pollack both worked with him for their releases, and he has worked with plenty more close to his Springfield, NJ hometown and Rutgers-New Brunswick campus. It is just recently that he is beginning to flourish as a solo artist. Under the clever pseudonym Mass Fiction, he has just released his first full-length, Never Lie Down. It actually was released for free on his 21st birthday, and can still be obtained for free on his SoundCloud. Fishkin’s production work has varied wildly, from the soulful alt-rock of Bridges and exuberant reggae-ska hybrid of Tromboner to Ross Fish’s creative electro-pop. He has dealt with a surprising amount of varied acts for a producer of any age, so with this it comes as no surprise that Never Lie Down is a very polished affair with a stylistically multifarious nature. With even one go-around, any listener can see the potential of both Fishkin’s songwriting and production skills.
“Jah Take the Wheel” is fully embracing with warm, gauzy layers of synth; it reminds me of The Radio Dept.’s Pet Grief. Choppy percussion then makes its arrival, complete with melodic percussive tweaks typical of dubstep. The track is dark and murky, but not without the playful nature inherent in much of Fishkin’s work that makes his skills as a pop songwriter prevalent in addition to his production chops. The track’s greatest strength comes in the final minute, when a crisply reverbed synth riff – which emulates the sound of a guitar – finds perfect accommodation over another eerie synth pad. A Bob Marley vocal sample is also used prominently here, showcasing a DJ Shadow influence by constructing a full-bodied melody from initial simplicity; the sample is not forced despite its somewhat off-beat presentation, simply because the elements surrounding it – from the guitar lick to the synth-pop beeps – all introduced themselves with grace and precision. It is certainly a job well done, even if it shows off Fishkin’s production skills more than anything.
“Tito Won’t Listen” certainly does not abandon the electronic soundscape entirely, infusing a more rock-oriented direction in addition. The jangly guitars during the main verse are actually reminiscent of ‘90s alt-rock in the vein of Smashing Pumpkins’ more subdued material (“Luna”, “Porcelina of the Vast Oceans”), with a hint of shoegaze thrown in for good measure. Just as the track slows down around the two-minute mark, a hard-rocking reprise of the opening lead emerges with ferocity seen in many indie-rock acts of today, like British Sea Power. The guitar melody here, while theoretically simplistic, achieves infectiousness through excellent rhythmic choices and polished production.
Continuing with the late ‘80s/early ‘90s rock feel, the blissful harmonies of “One Day” recall The Pixies in their purest form. The comparison is not hard to spot during the opener, though once it descends into the verse – with heavier distortion and vocals – Fishkin’s own sound comes out. Before reverting back to the “ooh”ing Pixies-esque harmonies, the guitar lead resembles the polished electro-rock of Ratatat, but without the generic one-trick-pony feel the latter group provides. Mass Fiction’s work is too varied for stiff styles of electro-rock. Guest vocalist Ross Fish keeps his voice hidden behind plenty of reverb, much like Fishkin’s voice on the other tracks, and this song is no different. It sounds like an echo amidst a rainy chaos, waiting to be unleashed with the proper introduction. This introduction is found around 03:07, when the distortion is more relaxed and a bumbling bass and swift guitar arpeggio are the only primary elements at play beyond Fish’s voice. While the vocal range is somewhat limited throughout Never Lie Down, Fishkin’s instrumental dexterity and production skills are not, and this allows the vocal sections on each song to succeed.
Fishkin’s finest piece of songwriting on Never Lie Down is “Spider Queen”. Not because it defies stylictic conventions or is astoundingly innovative though. Instead, this is a great example of the stellar hook-filled songwriting that Fishkin shows on Never Lie Down. Fishkin’s nasally voice reminds me most of The Wrens’ Charles Bissell, and the brilliant hybrid of alt-rock and electronic on “Spider Queen” is best demonstrative of this. Opener “Cold Heart” has the same depth in songwriting, although with more focus on instrumentation. Although Never Lie Down contains only seven tracks that span 28 minutes, it is a great showing of Fishkin’s potential, both as a songwriter and producer. His chops as a producer are especially notable, as he deals in genres that demand a great attention of detail on the production side of things. Considering his age, it’s a rare talent.
RIYL: The Wrens, DJ Shadow, Air, Radiohead, Smashing Pumpkins, The Radio Dept., Pinback, MGMT, The American Analog Set, Minus the Bear, Built to Spill, Ross Fish, The Appleseed Cast, Sharks Keep Moving, El Ten Eleven, Modest Mouse, The Sea and Cake, Cursive