Friday, February 18, 2011

5 Years - Part 4

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.

Angie Hart

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.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Speaking of Queen…

I had a friend/coworker “back in the day” named Tim whose two favorite bands were Queen and Judas Priest. At the time that didn’t seem to make much sense, but as I got to know Tim better it did; and as I got to know both bands (because of him) better, it did even more so.

Tim was a bit older than me and full of rock lore (among other things – dude was crazy brilliant). He also had some very unique takes on a lot of the music he (and subsequently we) listened to. One thing that he often pointed out when we’d have discussions about music – which were frequent, usually stemmed from me asking a question about this or that and often filtered back to either Queen or Priest – is that John Deacon, bassist for Queen, was a much underrated songwriter (not to mention bassist).

John Deacon, with Queen, top left

Or rather is one, ‘cost he’s still alive, just not writing songs anymore. Also, as far as I know, Tim is still alive too.


It’s easy to assume that the lead singer is the principle writer of any given band, at least lyrically, and from a superficial point of view (fanwise) that’s to be expected. But Queen was very much a democracy, and while Freddie Mercury was the undisputed focal point and certainly penned a great number of their tunes, Brian May equaled and maybe even surpassed him with contributions. Even drummer Roger Taylor (and I say “even” simply because drummers aren’t typically known for their sole songwriting credits) delivered at least one rocker from the very first album onward.

When I was first immersing myself in Queen, beyond the obligatory greatest hits collection, Tim would write down three to four songs per album that were must listens and, more often than not, one of them was a John Deacon offering. John didn’t begin writing until album number three, Sheer Heart Attack, with an easy going, mid-tempo rocker called Misfire that, while not the standout of the album, certainly wasn’t a misstep, or fire, either.

Tim said more than once, “John Deacon could always be relied on to provide at least one hidden gem per album.” Only this isn’t always the case…sometimes they’re one of the obvious highlights. You and I from Day at the Races, In Only Seven Days from Jazz and Who Needs You, one of the few songs I can tolerate from News of the World, were all penned by John Deacon. Oh, and maybe you’ve heard You’re My Best Friend and a little ditty called Another One Bites the Dust. You see what I’m saying?

I know it takes a real enthusiast (nice way of saying “geek”) to break down the-who-does-what and learn these things, but doing so helps catch a glimpse into the heart of the songwriter, and with a band as musically (and personally) diverse as Queen, the effort reveals fascinating layers later enhanced by repeat listens. Roger Taylor could have never written Spread Your Wings, but likewise John Deacon could have never written I’m in Love with My Car (one of my all-time Queen faves). These were two entirely different songwriters bringing in their separate facets to shine on the same diamond. The results, more often than not, are stellar.

John was the quiet, no frills member of a band who was known for, well, “breaking free” of so many type casts (and yes, John wrote that one as well). His songs are for the most part sweet, personal and deeply sentimental. You’re My Best Friend has probably been on thousands of mix tapes over the years, and Who Needs You on nearly as many break up compilations. These are songs the every-boy (or girl) can relate to and that’s part of what makes them so endearing. If Freddie was the passion, Brian was the precision and Roger was the balls out rock n roll insolence of Queen, John Deacon was certainly the heart.

I find it fitting that he has decided to retire from Queen and music altogether. It suits his personality, one I know mostly through the songs he wrote, which is legacy enough.

Also, Tim McDonald, if you're out there...thanks!!!

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Stains On a Decade: '03

I started this one literally months ago; kept getting stuck, distracted, etc, and then I became afraid of it. And since that’s just silly, I’ve now come back to it with a mind to just post it as is, warts and all so to speak.


Good ol’ 2003 really wasn’t much a year for me and new music, but a few things caught my ear, and here they are…

Oh, and I really don’t have an “album of 2003,” you know, one that defines the whole year for me, so these are just in random order - but the standouts have the album cover, so...there you have that.

Starting now…no, wait…ok, kidding…here we go!

The Strokes – Room on Fire: I initially wasn’t gonna include this album in the list ‘cos I’m honestly not much of a Strokes fan. But to be fair I’m not much of a Beatles fan either and yet I own all their albums and listen to them fairly often. Unfortunately (or rather not) I can’t say as much for the Strokes, and while I recognize Is This It as one of the best debuts of the past 10 years, I wasn’t really anticipating a follow up. Having said that, when Room on Fire did come out I have to admit that the couple or few times I heard it I actually liked it better than Is This It. I know most everyone (if not everyone) saw it as more of a sophomore slump, and while there certainly weren’t any stand out songs to rival the likes of Someday, Last Nite or the lethally catchy Hard to Explain, every song from Room on Fire is every bit as good as the second tier songs on Is This It (Barely Legal, Take It or Leave It, etc). And while this album is very much “second verse, same as the first,” it’s more consistent even if none of the songs peak like portions of the much hyped debut (but I tell ya, I Can’t Win makes a super duper effort). What I’m saying with more words than I should is this – with Room on Fire there are no peaks or valleys, just a nice, chugging, moderate plateau in between (well, better than that, but I wanted to stick with the landscape metaphor). I think this album is slightly more slickly produced than the first one, which benefits these songs and makes the Strokes sound like they’re no longer pretending to be the Stooges incarnate (thank you). So if you like what they did the first time you’ll be satisfied with what they did the second time. But of course if you knew the former to begin with, you almost certainly already know the latter.

The Church – Forget Yourself: Initially when a new artist emerges, at least this was the case at one time, fans could expect an album of new material every year to 18 months for the first several years. Creative juices are flowing and you’ve got to keep your public happy, right? Well, sure, but also, record labels (wisely?) wanted to keep the momentum of any built up popularity going. With many groups this sometimes meant a clunker or two or five, but the truly great bands could keep the good stuff coming even as they approach their 10-year anniversary. So in kind, by the time most bands have hit the 20-year mark it’s safe to say they’ve made their bundle, they’ve earned a bit of a rest and fans should expect a new album about every three to five years. Fair enough as many an artist’s “post heyday” output leaves much to be desired, especially when compared to their vital/critical/important early releases. I guess that’s to be accepted, but it’s certainly not always the case. The Church definitely fit the first mentioned scenario, with a slew of releases throughout the 80s until they reached their commercial peak, Starfish, in 1988, as well as their label-pleasing follow up, Gold Afternoon Fix, in 1990. But when the latter failed to keep the fame rising the boys just shrugged and started doing things the way they wanted to, continuing to put out albums every couple of years throughout the 90s, despite personnel issues, and as the new century began, doubling that output with 02’s After Everything Now This, ignoring the thought of commercial success or the idea of creating music for any other reason than music’s sake. And I’ve said about half of all of that before… So, anyway, 2003’s Forget Yourself follows that train of thought to the next level, nodding enough to previous efforts to create a cohesive pattern and then forging new territory where pick and stick have never gone before (at least not in this way). The word with Forget Yourself is “sonics.” Think Siamese Dream with less anger or radio gloss, replacing the former with a crypto-moody vibe and the latter with a disregard for all speakers on the planet save for those at the studio mixing board. Having said that, the Church can still write a catchy tune and often open an album with such. Here it’s Sealine, a mid-tempo rocker setting the stage for more tasty moments yet ahead. Next comes the single from the album, Song in Space, which basically lives up to the promise of its name and sounds like a Spiritualized song if they, you know, weren’t sorta lousy (I’m sorry…not really). Marty Willson-Piper’s See Your Lights is a searing, soaring outer world spin of garage rock, with a gnarly walk down that dares you to get in its way. The lovely Maya, from vocal line to guitar runs, is another down tempered standout, sprawling out from the heart and bringing you in with a gentle tug. Peter Koppes’ low-key Appalatia, along with understated trip-hop beat, continues the same warmth but builds upon itself with ethereal layers of guitars and pianos, maintaining a very understated “Neil Young” sort of feel. Every song is a new direction in lush landscapes often as not wandering into the truly ethereal but never getting lost within themselves. Of their post 80s heyday and 90s identity crisis albums, Forget Yourself just may be the strongest of their 00s return to form…but let’s wait until the 06 entry.

The Postal Service – Give Up: I’m glad they did, and wish he would. (Oh yes, I did!) Seriously, I didn’t hate this when it came out, and loads of Death Cab for Cutie fans were certainly drooling all over it. But while I liked the premise I thought outside of a couple of undeniably snappy tunes it was pretentious and ultimately boring – been there, done that, bought the cassette tape. In fact, the best thing about this whole project was Iron & Wine (whom I truly despise) covering Such Great Heights, which is proof that right there is a good song even if its yet to be performed to its fullest potential. But again, there are high points here in a lo-fi Bjork sort of way, and my problem with the Postal Service is my problem with DCFC – one Benjamin Gibbard, who is at once the genius and the downfall of both acts, with his heart-on-sleeve simpering just a little too real and a little too whiny for me to stomach with my current and longstanding jaded sensibilities. But if this had been an EP of say the released singles plus Nothing Better, then Give Up would have been a more solid effort and would have likely prodded me to say “give (me) more.” Alas…

Death Cab for Cutie – Transatlanticism: Speaking of Death Cab for Cutie…snore. Ok, seriously…some amazing moments are found on this album, just as with every DCFC album, and honestly, this release is far more consistent than the first three, though again suffers from being too openly personal in a way that doesn’t hit home or even open a window to the pain, but frustrates like a bad indie drama where none of the characters are believable or likable but you watch it anyway (I’m talking to you, Squid and the Whale). Still, there aren’t any songs that just flat out annoy me as in previous outings, so again, and as mentioned, there are times when the mush is just right and soul meets body (ha, ha, ha) in a very magical way. Of course the apex of this is the desperately moving title track, nearly eight minutes of tears that just keep on coming and you don’t want them to stop. Really, much like Stability from 2002, this song is a balm for any bruised heart that has experienced a great loss, and a plea to let it all out. We also get the reverse on Transatlanticism, with the super bouncy Sound of Settling, an ode to acceptance and a mantra to carry on regardless of circumstances. But really, I think what sums it up for me with this one, and in a lot of ways life in general, is the opening line of the opening track, “So this is the New Year, and I don’t feel any different.” I heard that, and I’d like to again.

The Shins – Chutes Too Narrow: I really thought Oh! Inverted World, with a couple of obvious exceptions, was a bit of a dull and overrated album. I’ll go ahead and say that I prefer Flake Music to the Shins any day, and of course there are similarities, but it’s the differences I dig…dig? These guys fall, for me, into the same conditioning as Coldplay…either dead on or dead boring. In the case of Chutes Too Narrow we thankfully get more of the former than the latter. Is it the production, which is crisper and cleaner than its predecessor, or the songs themselves, which are more ambitious and tuneful…yes, maybe, I dunno. What I do know is me likey, from pseudo-tough rockers like Fighting in a Sack and Kissing the Lipless, to truly gorgeous numbers like the ever-haunting Saint Simon and (should be album closer) Gone for Good. And of course everything is neatly packaged and tied together with James Mercer’s plaintive voice and undeniable melodies, the true focus and the source of the fuss. Folks were so gaga for the debut that they almost panned Chutes Too Narrow (I mean seriously people, stop falling for the hype), but this album is such a step away from (and ahead of) that album I almost let myself get excited for number three…but we’ll get to that one later.

The Beatles – Let It Be…Naked: Oh Paul, why…? History is not gonna change and you certainly don’t need the money. Plus, anybody who cares has already had these versions of these songs via bootleg for years. YEARS!!!

Yanni – Ethnicity: Apparently this goob was still putting out music in ’03. Has anyone stopped him yet?

Fleetwood Mac – Say You Will: Right off the bat I’m gonna say this - I really miss Christine McVie on this album, but more on her pop bliss brilliance for another time… So, with that out of the way, this album, the official comeback of the almost “classic line up” is a straight up winner…thank you Mr. Buckingham! Lindsey Buckingham’s solo career post Tango in the Night has been an underrated marvel, and proof that he was the true creative source behind the most famous incarnation of the band, pushing them beyond the conformities of AOR rock. Say You Will is basically this…a 21st Century follow up to their 1979 landmark double LP, Tusk. The ambition, the drive, the plethora of fantastic tunes and the tinkering studio magic are all present, all meticulously stitched together, forming a patchwork of seamless, timeless music every bit as worthy of the Fleetwood Mac moniker with either this or any of the late 60s/mid 70s line ups that are more often than not dismissed or forgotten if they were even known (by the general public) in the first place. And yes, just like any longwinded album, including Tusk, it does meander at times, even becomes a bit indulgent, but that just means that there are many more nuggets to dig up from repeat listens (a must), along with plenty of standouts – Illume, Miranda, Silver Girl – to keep the momentum flowing smoothly.

Minor Threat – First Demo Tape: Certainly a release for die-hard completists (present), this collection of already familiar songs is a fine representation of what Minor Threat had to offer the disaffected youth of the early 80s and so on to the present day. My favorite bit is Guilty of Being White, where Ian had presently only served 18 years of his time. Makes me wonder that if they did a reunion, would he be able to fit in 48…probably.

Belle & Sebastian – Dear Catastrophe Waitress: After solidifying some personnel changes, and with the stopgap release of the Storytelling soundtrack to keep the scent fresh, Belle & Sebastian’s next proper album was a step (rather several) away from a) the more experimental styles of Fold You Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant and b) the classic twee pop ditties that endeared them to thousands in the first place. The results are a more polished, sophisticated, dance-worthy and dare I say “adult contemporary” stab at…mainstream success? I dunno. With a “classic B&S” approach at production (this here being handled by the video killing radio star Trevor Horn), DCW could have been another Boy with the Arab Strap – that is to say angular, quirky, a bit misguided, but overall fantastic fun – but instead becomes a creature all itself, standing aside from its brethren somewhat aloof and self-satisfied. And to a certain degree there’s some merit for that, ‘cos Stuart and Co certainly crafted a smart record, but unfortunately the record knows it. And while it may not have been an obvious choice, it was certainly an understandable one, ‘cos just how far were B&S expected to push the fey envelope? What I’m saying here is that a bunch of good songs, a couple of great ones and a pleasant clunker or two were sorta hampered by an over the top sound that rather weighed down these already over the top songs. This makes DCW a rather trying listen, as it forces its cleverness on you instead of letting is seep in shyly as on previous efforts. Now step back you rabid twee-boppers, this doesn’t mean there aren’t several enjoyable moments (especially the singles…Step Into My Office, Baby and I’m a Cuckoo, etc), and it’s a solid listen overall, but not one that is very memorable, and with the exception of the absolutely brilliant If You Find Yourself Caught In Love, DCW is not an album that you feel like going back to for a second helping at the end of the spin. And while I can look through the track list and hum these songs, I find that they all hum rather samey (or maybe I’m just tone deaf). Honestly, the surrounding singles released from DCW sported much more interesting b-sides than the album delivered as a whole, which perhaps shows the band was looking for a more consistent flow (having possibly learned from the “mistakes” of Fold You Hands Child…), but this overall leaves it all coming off a bit flat – which is something B&S had never been before.