Album Retrospective: Slow Road to Tiny Empire
March 22, 2023
Unearthed from the catacombs of the 90s lo-fi movement comes Fan Modine’s Slow Road to Tiny Empire–an art pop, chamber folk fusion that is every bit as fun as it is peculiar. I encountered this hidden gem when I was assigned to review it on WVAU’s music staff my sophomore year (shoutout to them). This record never got a digital release, but it made its way to the rack via its first ever appearance on streaming platforms, and it perplexes me now just as it did then. Everything about it screams cryptic cult classic, but it sadly never reached those heights back in ‘98.
Fan Modine is the brainchild of Boston based Gordon Zacharias, and his loose mixes and distorted production make his debut album an experience that’s playful, raw, and undeniably original. Despite the eerily distant universe that Slow Road seems to exist in, there are elements to it that are strangely familiar. Each song has pretty pop melodies at their core, but the blanket of guitar feedback and the lo fi fuzz are the glue that holds this project together. Don’t let its unpolished nature fool you though– this record is elaborate, complex, and layered.
The album opens with “Cardamon Chai,” a track about a love interest who tastes sweet like the song’s title. The lyrics suggest a feeling of warmth early on, but towards the end of the track, the music follows suit. Colorful synths permeate through the pleasant acoustic guitar melody and wrap it snugly in their grasp. This is one of many instances of the music and lyrics coordinating thematically. On “Tinseltown,” Zacharias declares that “everybody on Earth wants to go to space;” a line that encapsulates the record’s otherworldly zeal. The subject matters on Slow Road to Tiny Empire are often whimsical and meaningless, reminiscent of a group like Animal Collective. The bittersweet melodies coated in psychedelic drones evoke shades of Deerhunter (if they had half the budget to work with). But Slow Road came out before Animal Collective’s debut in 2000, and long before Deerhunter’s debut in 2007. Hindsight shows us that Fan Modine was ahead of his time, and that only adds to this album’s enigma.
It never found audiences in the music climate from which it emerged, so it’s only fitting that this record was originally intended for a different medium; it was meant to be the soundtrack of a film that Zacharias never ended up making. Whether it’s the odd story behind its inception, the fact that Fan Modine only has 56 monthly listeners on Spotify, or the fact that it’s astonishingly innovative, Slow Road is full of mystery and wonder. To cap off a delightfully strange listening experience, the final track is 37 minutes long, but the final 33 minutes of that track are dedicated to a crackling loop of distant church bells and nothing else. Fan Modine’s debut record is unpredictable, eccentric, and a total blast. But above all else, Slow Road To Tiny Empire is one-of-a-kind, and that uniqueness alone is enough to determine that this album deserved more attention than it got.
Fan Modine – Cardamon Chai
Fan Modine – Tinseltown
Animal Collective – Chocolate Girl
Deerhunter – He Would Have Laughed
Fan Modine – Mesopotamian Pop Soda
Fan Modine – Rhubarb Pie
Animal Collective – Turn Into Something
Fan Modine – Trash in Romance