Longtime Cincinnati Indie Pop/Rock band Culture Queer is adding another great entry to their spectacular discography. Named for a bizarre former amusement park in the Middletown area, Fantasy Farm is the quartet’s fifth album and it once again showcases the group’s many strengths — expertly- and artfully-crafted Pop arrangements, an engaging (but never overbearing) quirkiness and a non-stop flood of ear-grabbing melodies.
In 2004, Jeremy Lesniak, Scott Fredette, Sam Womelsdorf and Dana Hamblen released the first Culture Queer album, Supersize It Under Pontius Pilate, which was that year's Cincinnati Entertainment Award-winner for Album of the Year. Their subsequent releases — an EP in 2005, 2009's Kid-Friendly Dinner Party and 2012's Nightmare Band — have combined to create one of the most consistently brilliant catalogs of any Cincinnati-based band in that time span.
Fantasy Farm is their best work yet, the culmination of all they've done so far in their (way too sporadic) career. While vibrant Pop Rock is the anchor, the band cycles through colors and tones throughout — but never too dramatically, lest they draw attention from the wondrous songwriting. The inherent, seemingly effortless catchiness of the songs and Fredette and Hamblen's radiant, intertwining harmonies and melodies are constants, as are the streaks of heartfelt melancholy and sincere hopefulness that pop up and give the often cheery-sounding tunes an emotional weight that creates a fascinating dynamic with the more idiosyncratic moments.
The musical and tonal diversity makes Fantasy Farm a great start-to-finish album-listening experience. There is some bug-eyed New Wave herk-and-jerk driving "Come On Get Happy" (not that one — it's an original), which is followed by "When Where What," a soaring Indie Pop gem that would be a highlight on any Shins album. There is often a psychedelic vibe to the proceedings (in the melodic swirl especially), but CQ gets its full freak on with "Baby Alice," a hypnotic track that builds to an eerie spoken-word passage that's pitched down low, sounding like one of those deep voice-changers people use to mask their identity at a trial or on a daytime talk show.
The vocals are the most prominent feature, but Fantasy Farm is musically rock-solid and creative, as the musicians conjure a fluctuating, kaleidoscopic sonic foundation with mostly guitars, bass and drums (Womelsdorf's guitar work is reliably imaginative), as well as occasional electronic sounds. But they do mix up the instrumentation on a few tracks. Cincinnati veteran Ricky Nye plays piano on "Rock N Roll," which has a boogie and swagger that nods to vintage Glam Rock. The title and chugging drumbeat of the track seem to serve as notice to the beyond-problematic Gary Glitter that Culture Queer is reclaiming his hit "Rock & Roll Part 1 and 2" as their own. (Attention sports teams — CQ's "Rock N Roll" is a perfect, guilt-free jock-jam replacement to rile up your crowds.)
"John Davidson" (a reference to the singer who was performing at the local Beverly Hills Supper Club on the night it caught on fire in the ’70s and killed 165 people) brings the album to a satisfying, chilled-out close, which is made all the more dreamy by the flute flutters of Mohenjo Daro's Johnny Ruzsa. It's a peaceful, almost meditative finale, albeit one spiked with a few aural twists as it creeps toward the crescendo, including more slanted spoken parts and the serene sound of a bird chirping. The left-field quirks that are worked into the textures of Fantasy Farm sometimes bring to mind the experimentation of The Beatles on Sgt. Pepper, injecting an avant-garde element into the Power Pop magic (though CQ's additives feel more natural and subtle).
It’s remarkable that Culture Queer isn’t a nationally renowned band, touring the country and playing to sold-out crowds of fervent fans. Fantasy Farm is another reminder of the group’s powerhouse talent and unique artistry — in a just world it would be near the top of Pitchfork’s forthcoming list of the best albums of 2019. As the ’10s come to a close, it stands as one of the best Cincinnati-produced albums of the decade.
A spectacular lineup of local acts will be joining Culture Queer to celebrate Fantasy Farm’s release on Saturday, Nov. 30. The free show at Northside Tavern (4163 Hamilton Ave., Northside, northsidetav.com) will feature special guests Wussy, Joesph, Slow Glows, Lemon Sky and Mohenjo Daro performing on both of the Tavern’s stages throughout the night.
Fantasy Farm will be available at the show on vinyl and CD.
Get more info about Culture Queer at facebook.com/CultureQueer.