Filligar shows plenty of talent and thought on 'Succession'

by Allison Ruderman | 11/9/06 6:00am

Alt-rock band Filligar has undertaken a dicey gamble by entering an already overcrowded musical niche. An excess of bands hoping to capitalize on today's baroque pop and post-punk trends has cropped up -- notably, groups like TV on the Radio and Arcade Fire. But in its latest album, "Succession, I Guess," Chicago-based Filligar projects a sweetly affecting charm that's hard to ignore -- and, curiously, hard to dislike.

"Succession, I Guess" offers a set of lyrically smart songs accompanied by satisfying keyboard- and guitar-driven melodies. As a whole, the album plays like a diary of a young person dealing with relationship issues, the pursuit of identity, lost friends and the desire to express individuality. It really is about succession: the growing chain of time and people and places and things. Alternately breezy and brainy, the album is a tremendous success.

With intelligent lyrics, Filligar essentially plays pop music for the hipster Ivy League set. It's no accident, as two of Filligar's members in fact are Dartmouth students: the bassist and percussionist are twin brothers Teddy '09 and Pete Mathias '09, who double as students and musicians.

Another Mathias brother, 17-year-old Johnny, sings lead vocals and plays guitar. On piano and keyboard is the brothers' longtime friend and Hamilton College sophomore Casey Gibson.

One might suspect that it is difficult for the members of Filligar, as full-time students, to maintain a devotion to the band. "Right now our education is the top priority for all of us," Teddy said. "But during our vacations we spend almost every day writing songs, practicing, playing shows and recording -- our vacation time previews what life will be like for us after graduation."

Given these circumstances, it's little surprise that much of the album has a distinctly collegiate feel. For instance, only a select demographic -- today's college-age population -- might understand the allusion to "watching SNICK" (the former Saturday night lineup for television network Nickelodeon) in the song "The Midnight Society." The song's title itself presumably refers to the secret storytelling society featured in another old Nickelodeon program, "Are You Afraid of the Dark?" In a further example, Solo cups, those ubiquitous college party props, are name-dropped in the album's second track, "Apricot Jam."

A highlight of the album is lead singer Johnny Mathias' vocal switches between a twee-influenced, gentle whisper and a fully-voiced punk whine. Using the former, Mathias is able to create a haunting mood in closing track "Analog" -- a touch just effective enough so as to forgive the song's obscure lyrics, which for some reason try to connect an analog wristwatch to a vision of adult life.

The lyrics throughout are obscure, perhaps, but not obnoxiously so. In fact, half of the album's appeal is the density and complexity of its words. "I hope the grapes are sweet 'cause while/the raisin takes the heat the fifth circle competes," Filligar sings in the rollicking but angsty "Sunflower Kid," alluding to Dante's "Inferno." A high level of intellectualism and wit is built into every lyric.

Filligar's bookish quality is clearest in "Fruit Fly (Drosophila melanogaster)," which is a literal tribute to the high school biology ritual of mating fruit flies. Oddly -- or perhaps brilliantly -- the lyrics are sandwiched between long, gorgeous piano and guitar solos. The result is a welcome respite from the album's lyrical jungle, which signals a remarkably mature musical intelligence.

However, Filligar's endearing style can't always disguise its youth. A wildly incongruous synth riff at the end of "Big Things," for example, better befits a tacky laser light show than an indie rock song.

Filligar occasionally gets carried away with their brand of whimsical hyper-literacy. This is apparent especially when academic references are haphazardly inserted: calling an underwater vehicle a "chromatid taxi-crab" in "Venice World's Fair (c. 2138 A.D.)" is not only cryptic, but also a little ham-fisted.

The things that plague Filligar now are likely just symptoms of a not-fully-ripe talent. Continued exposure and musical growth should temper a lot of the over-exuberance.

But, in terms of exposure, Filligar is certainly on the fast track. Its opening track "Yanni Walker" is currently a finalist for a national contest held by television network The CW and sponsored by MySpace.com. Of the 10 bands competing, the one that receives the most votes from MySpace users will have its song air on an episode of the television show "The Supernatural." If Filligar fans vote the band to success, the Mathias brothers might instantly find themselves with a national audience.

In addition, Chicago station 93WXRT recently gave Filligar airtime, playing the radio-ready single "Apricot Jam." "Succession, I Guess" is also currently available for download in the iTunes Music Store.

"After graduation we plan on making Filligar our top priority. While we want Filligar to be on every iPod in the country, success is not our top priority; the music is. We will continue to play music together after college because we love doing it, and hopefully success will follow," said Pete, about the future of the band.