By Nicki Escudero
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By Brian Palmer
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Rob Withem sits cross-legged on his living room floor in the Phoenix apartment he shares with his wife. On the couch are two of Withem's bandmates from Fine China, bassist Greg Markov and drummer Thom Walsh. Missing from the quartet is keyboardist Joshua Block.
"Morrisey and Marr were, like, it for writing pop melodies and beautiful melancholy songs," Withem, the Fine China singer/guitarist/keyboardist, says of his heroes from the Smiths.
Morrisey and Marr? Who would be holding up a group that fizzled a decade and a half ago? Particularly in an inverted town like Phoenix, Arizona, where waifish English pop stars are, uh, not the most beloved.
But the anachronisms abound. Both Withem and Markov sport haystack manes not unlike Crocodile-era Bunnymen. Withem's singing is the polar opposite of Kid Rock -- it's a teary-eyed tenor that approximates a boy reading Keats aloud in pop's enchanted garden.
Then there's the actual sound of Fine China, which equates itself with the aforementioned Smiths, blended with scraps of the Pet Shop Boys and Wild Swans and lots of New Order. Plenty of eddying analog synths, popcorn drum machines and undulating bass pulled with shimming songwriting. It would be a colossal understatement to say the sound ain't fashionable at the moment. There isn't a radio station anywhere with a format that approaches the band's hindsight.
It could very well be 1984 inside casa Withem. Yet, in 1984, Withem was all of 6 years old.
Oh, yeah, what's weirder is that Fine China is a Christian band -- apostles trapped under English gray in northwest Phoenix, playing the devil's music.
Two weeks ago, Seattle God-head indie Tooth and Nail released Fine China's debut full-length album, When the World Sings, nationwide.
"We're just a band trying to make good music and live our lives," says Markov in a slightly rigid syntax. The 23-year-old arrived in Phoenix from Moscow nine years ago.
Markov supports his mother and two younger siblings by working at a software company with Withem.
"We play in bars and it just so happens that we're Christians," he says. "And it just so happens that through our connections we're on Tooth and Nail."
He notes that secular and Christian pop bands rely on "the same three chords."
"It's just my life; I don't really see a dichotomy," adds Withem, Fine China's sole songwriter. "If I was contradicting my beliefs through the music, I'd be a total hypocrite. Would I quit if I was in a position to compromise myself? Oh yeah, sure. I don't think you have to."
With fresh faces and bright eyes, the men of Fine China seem almost indecently sincere. They don't get drunk, don't do drugs. Withem claims he's never been drunk, never taken drugs. He says it's "so easy to be decadent and act like a fool when you are out [on the road]."
But the band keeps it together.
"I did some drugs a long time ago," admits Walsh, 28, the eldest of the bunch. By day, he's an ASU student.
Withem put Fine China together as a three-piece guitar-pop trio four years ago. Markov soon came into the picture, and as lineup changes ensued, Block and Walsh joined.
In 1997, the band snared the ear of Ronnie Martin, one half of the Orange County synth-pop band Joy Electric. Aside from producing the Fine China's Tooth and Nail debut, Martin did two EPs and a seven-inch that saw daylight on the tiny California indie Velvet Blue Music.
The band has a couple of national tours under its belt and each summer plays a major Christian rock event in Illinois called the Cornerstone Music Festival.
A casual listen to When the World Sings might, at its worst, suggest Fine China has put itself in reverse and waxed nostalgic for '80s New Wave. But in actuality, the songs are as good as anything pre-Britpop that aspired to be pure pop, references to the Lord or not. It's an album that sounds happy with what it is, about the progression not being so important as doing what you do well.
Fine China's song "We Rock Harder Than You Ever Knew" is a reactionary turn against the tide of angry suburban über-teens who embrace groups like Papa Roach, which bitches for having too many options. With that as a backdrop, the lyrics and their angelic delivery have more power of platitude than social spittle spat from 100 angry punk bands: "Now we're singing melodies of love to the world, love to the world/And speaking peace to all the families/And we rock harder than you ever knew."
Withem's approach to songwriting is old-school -- he believes that pop songs should be born out of craft and not some arbitrary jam with a vocal tossed on the top like some obligatory dressing. Withem asserts that the band is "all about the songs."
Withem was influenced by a bevy of faded-flower English crooners like Bernard Sumner and Morrisey, which explains why he describes the tone of his voice as un-American. But to sing with that kind of almost twee timbre shows real balls. To go out and actually sing, to not hide behind some wall of testosterone-fueled trend-o angst, doesn't appear to be the easiest or surest way onto the Top 200.
Growing up, Withem played the violin for 18 years. He got into to pop bands, he says, through the Christian music scene.
"I just randomly started liking melodies and stuff," he says. "I really kind of got into that sound through Joy Electric and Starflyer 59 and some of the other bands. I would read their interviews and stuff and they'd say, 'Hey, we like the Smiths,' or whatever. So I would go out and pick up a Smiths record."
Withem, Markov and Walsh don't go around quoting scripture. As Markov points out, "It's nothing more than just living the life of a Christian. No big deal."
"I read the Bible every day," Withem adds.
Given the type of soothing racket Fine China presents, it would be nearly impossible to land the kind of record deal it has with Tooth and Nail (which lost popular Christian punks MxPx to A&M). Not only did Tooth and Nail cover recording costs and advance the band cash, the label plans to vend Fine China in both Christian and mainstream markets. It's a big fat grip for an indie label that has hopes of seeing the band embraced by kids in all markets.
"Kids are kids, ya know?" says Withem. "So I'd like as many kids as possible to be able to hear our music and songs. We found that kids like a big variety of bands in that (Christian) scene. Kids who like the Supertones or whatever will say, 'Hey, you guys are like my favorite album.' Kids aren't really particular, like, 'Hey, we're indie kids so we only like these records.'
"We're doing stuff that's a bit more historical, maybe. We have a lot more influences coming through than maybe some of the other bands. A lot of the kids in the Christian scene don't really catch on to that kind of stuff, some of the depth."
So far, the fall isn't shaping up as planned. A U.S. tour scheduled for the better part of October and November was recently canceled. That leaves the band but a couple of local shows and Thursdays at Anderson's Fifth Estate, a night of Britpop that the band wholly embraces.
"It's cool," enthuses Markov. "No other place in Phoenix can you hear the Smiths, New Order, Pulp and Suede on the same night."
"Well, there's my house," says Withem.