All you guys remember Frente, right? Right? Shame on you.
Oh to be taken back to 1993 and the overall giddy excitement in hearing the Labour of Love EP (British spelling on “labor” here) for the first time. It’s the last time I remember being really, really thrilled about new music because I was sharing it with my good friend Robert Lee. Remember kids, music is always better with a kindred listener. (Look JT, don’t get upset, I’m not saying I’ve never been excited when I listened to music with you, I’m just saying…well, you just had to be there).
When Frente’s debut album, Marvin the Album, finally came out over the summer of 1994 (a full two years after its native Australia release) Robert was rather underwhelmed but I was taken to the next level for as far as that album was willing to go…which was really far.
And I will not belabor either the EP or the LP at this time. Those are two gems that deserve praise in their own entries. But what I will do is speak to Frente’s second and (thusfar) final album, Shape.
I think Shape could easily be called a sophomore slump. Yes, all the ingredients from the debut are present – quirk-catchy pop songs with lighthearted, often frenetic instrumentation, fun but insightful lyrics and Angie Hart’s (…ahhhh…) dreamy voice – but where Marvin the Album was a statement to the rush and bump of life and love put to vibrant, living music, a statement of itself as what it was, nothing more or less (and really, you’ll hear no other album like Marvin), Shape had all the right pieces that never seemed to fit, sounding more like a statement for the sake of a statement, which to me, when you’re Frente!, is missing the whole point.
Initially this was a group who were able to pull a good feeling out of a bad situation, making songs about heartbreak and war almost uplifting and ridiculously easy to dance to. (Seriously, when you’re hearing a voice as sisterly sweet as Angie’s, it’s hard not to feel that much better.) But with Shape it was if they were trying to shed the frivolous skin that made them so endearing, only to leave the quirky flesh beneath an unguarded, awkward and self-conscious mess.
And mess really isn’t the right word. Marvin is a mess as far as moods and genres go. Both albums jump all over the place. But Shape lacks the immediacy, the whimsy, the open armed, come on let’s go of its older sibling. There are a lot of great songs on this album, but they approach the ears in a tired, wary, almost sterile way, relying more on “studio magic” than on bare bones rockin’, simply playing for you because they are songs and that’s what songs do and not because they get any genuine joy from it.
And that’s a lot of heavy analysis and metaphor for what boils down to “just a pop album.” But you have to understand how important Frente!’s first EP and album were, rather are, to me. These are two discs that still get heavy rotation and still make my heart skip a beat. Shape never did, and I’m sad to say likely never will…unless I can find a new perspective, which is something I’m trying to do with this series.
The last time I remember listening to this album was pulling off of I-65 on the Brentwood exit, looping around to head into Brentwood. I don’t remember where I was going or where I had been, but I remember thinking, “This album isn’t doing anything for me, and I hate that.” It’s like when a good friend lets you down without meaning to. I mean I HATE saying this about a Frente! album, but there it is. Man, I suck.
When I put this disc in again a bit ago, I was surprised at how well I remembered the songs. Not like with Marvin where as one song is ending my brain is already playing the opening bars of the next one; but in the middle of the first chorus I would recall a word or a line or a melody. So that’s saying something. And like I said, there are a lot of good songs, they just lack the jump-on-your-back-and-give-me-a-piggy-back-ride playfulness that, well, they should have. Call it production. Call it bad timing and a lack of nostalgia ‘cos I didn’t get it back in ‘96 when I should have. Call it Bernie. Call it…well, whatever. From what I understand this was a difficult album to make because of band tension and Frente! didn’t last much longer after its release. And you know a bad vibe can kill a good thing in an instant, so I won’t blame anything but the circumstances (not that this is about blame), and try to salvage what I can from the wreckage.
A definite winner is Goodbye Goodguy. This one could have easily been a Marvin stray, but the point is that it feels like Marvin, warm and alive, and despite its melancholy content, you get an overall pleasant and enjoyable feeling listening to Angie’s lament over the loss of a love. Again, it’s the way she tells it, rather sings it, to you that makes the difference, that makes a sad song not just relatable but agreeably so. And honestly, a good bit of these songs run in a similar way (Horrible, Burning Girl, Air), though not with the same immediacy. So yes, Shape is an album that requires repeat listens.
But then there are some that just fall flat because they try too hard. And I don’t know, I’m not judging, but Marvin just felt so effortless, like those songs flowed from hands and mouth like Dylan snatching words and melodies out of the air. And few bands have more than one, maybe two, albums like that, where the magic is that prevalent; which means I’m putting too much pressure on Frente! and on Shape. Yet still, The Destroyer is just blueprint Frente! without any of the spirit and Calmly is just one of a couple acoustic based ballads that are sweet without the bitter, or bitter without the sweet, but overall lacking that addictive blend that make Frente!’s initial efforts required listening…for anyone.
I think in the end it’s all about the production, which is your standard mid-90s affair that does nothing but mar and reign in the joyous Frente! sound – which is best when in a pure form, raw and wriggling. A lot of the infectious melodies, vocally and musically, are missing, or sorely covered up in the murk. Angie's voice is as great as ever, the band is spot on, but none of it soars, and that effortless, freeform playing is muffled and restrained. Look, that ! is part of the name for a reason, kids. This is a great band going through the motions, which is good but not meeting potential. The structure is there, but the heart is gone; it’s deadpan, it's an endless Steven Wright joke (where did the come from?), but I'm not laughing.
And it’s a shame that this was pretty much it for the band. They reunited in the 21st century, toured a bit and even released an EP in 2005, which I’ve shamefully not heard, so I like to think that, as I said early on, Shape was simply a slump while they brewed up something else exceptional. I mean I’m glad this album exists, it gives me something to strive for in a new discovery, and I’m not done exploring this album now or, if I put it down again for awhile, in another five years. And that’s the glory of music with me, sometimes some songs/albums/groups don’t manifest themselves until I need them. But c’mon, Shape, don’t hold out on me too long.