tremble clef

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Frank, "All I Ever Do" (2006)

It is really, really, really difficult to talk about Frank and their debut album Devil's Got Your Gold without invoking Girls Aloud, so I'm...not going to fight it. Indeed, although the album is quite enjoyable and may prove to be even better in the coming weeks, I do think that its shortcomings stem precisely from the fact that Xenomania fought the potential Girls Aloud comparisons too hard, or at least in the wrong ways.

Frank, as you may know if you've kept a ear in the vicinity of the pop grapevine, is made up of four women who were brought together to star in a Channel 4 TV series called Totally Frank. In it, they play fictional characters in the music biz, but the idea was always that in real life they would then become a proper musical group and release records. It's life imitating art, by which we mean reality TV, or something. (Of course, none of this explains why everyone concerned picked such a preposterously empty and ungoogleable band name. If it was solely to enable the weak pun in the show title, then the moniker is even more unpardonable, though I might grudgingly forgive them if they did a sequel series, went on tour with, or just married Lorraine.)

Still, all of this would have passed with minimal fuss if it were not the case that uber-producers Xenomania came on board to do the music for the girls. That's the Xenomania that has created pop masterpieces for Kylie, Sugababes, Rachel Stevens, Saint Etienne, and, ah, Girls Aloud. Not helping matters in this regard, Frank actually supported the Aloud on the latter's recent tour, so Frank are arriving more or less pre-yoked to their illustrious predecessors.

As listeners or critics, one way to deal with these comparisons is via the Popjustice route, which hilariously noted with typical dryness that "every new pop group can't be Girls Aloud. Just imagine how boring the world would be if every guitar band sounded like Coldplay. Oh, hang on..."

But this method of simply refusing to humor the comparisons isn't especially satisfying, tantamount to sticking your fingers in your ears and going "la la la la..." It would be one thing if Frank made heavy metal or country records that generically have little in common with Girls Aloud's output, but the two bands tread very similar ground (despite Frank trying to cultivate a "real band who play their own instruments" persona). It's almost impossible to hear, say, the girly rap in Frank's "Turn It Up," or the last thirty seconds of "Never Left A Girl," to not think of Girls Aloud, if you've ever heard the latter's distinctive output. "Complicated," may even owe a slight debt to the Aloud b-side "I Don't Really Hate You."

If this public and critical reaction is so unavoidable, then how best for Xenomania to deal it? What's interesting -- and by that I mean "initially quite disappointing to me" -- is that the producers have chosen a not very innovative or self-reflexive way of doing so. Which, namely, is this: on Devil's Got Your Gold, Xenomania has just kind of muted the touches they normally bring to their Girls Aloud productions. For example, on "I'm Not Shy," which Frank released as the first single, the opening twangy guitar is decidedly less twangy than it would if this had been an Aloud single, and the "ah oooh wa ooh wa" vocal hook is a bit more buried in the mix, as if it's somehow embarrassed and careful not to slip into the kind of blunt to-the-guttiness that permeates Aloud records. The result is an album that's good -- the poptastic songcraft is still intact and recognizable -- but in a way that's oddly less POW! than it could have been. The generous reaction to this is to say that Devil's Got Your Gold is therefore a more "subtle" or "grown-up" record than the Girls Aloud albums (adjectives that I've in fact seen on message boards). But then again, it might just mean that the record is just less deliciously shiny than the Aloud's best work.

The frustrating thing, of course, is that we know Xenomania are fully capable of producing the tracks in bigger, more glittery ways. That they haven't is therefore not because they can't, but it's like they were somehow shying away from it, perhaps out of fear of inviting comparisons. Which seems to me the worst of all possible solutions, some distance behind (1) refuting those expectations by actually producing a record that was completely different; (2) embracing them by turning the motherfucker up, and making the album even shinier than a Girls Aloud record; (3) or finding some way to deconstruct those expectations. Insofar as I had any expectations of the record, they were along the lines of option trois. Brian Higgins and company are so witty in their work that it made me hope that they would implicitly acknowledge, and then do something subversive to, those expectations. I'm not sure what that would mean, concretely speaking. Xenomania giving Frank a song called "Clones" to record, setting it to a backing track created by playing "Biology" backwards, while Miranda Cooper pens a lyric, complete with references to Vertigo, that actually indicts men for imaging that women are interchangeable, perhaps ("You dress me up in new clothes but I find it untoward/Cause I don't wanna play Kim Novak to your Jim Stewart!"). That would have met head-on, broken down, and thereby preempted things, which is almost always the best way to deal with inevitable comparisons.

Oh well. It will come as no surprise to report that my favorite track on the album is one in which Xenomania seems least frightened of inviting those comparisons. On "All I Ever Do," they go all in and create a loud, thrilling pop number that makes no discernible effort to not sound like it could have been recorded by Girls Aloud. The guitar riff is prominent, and while not surf-twangy, has the kind of crunchiness that we know and love. Furthermore -- and we haven't even gotten into this in any detail -- one other weakness of the Frank album is that Lauren Blake's vocals lack the character, attitude, and plain old sass of Nadine's, Sarah's, Cheryl's, Nicola's, or Kimberly's. But the wavering melody of "All I Ever Do" is so lilting -- "I took your hand this morning and we turned to grey"; "cause all I ever do is wait at home for you/When all you ever do is make me black and blue" -- that it drags Lauren's vocals up and down the scale, and thereby injects or even forces a bit more emotion into them (much as Richard X's production did to Rachel Stevens' on "Crazy Boys," as I've argued). It's a brilliant pop track in the midst of some other not-bad ones (and you can find another Frank track over at XO's Middle Eight), although those others really should have been equally ace.

5 Comments:

  • Please please please produce "Clones"!! (Although perhaps an alternate chorus should be 'You bundle us up in heavy anoraks/But I'm going to kick you to the sewer..." Or, um, maybe not.)

    By Anonymous esque, at 12:51 AM  

  • You + me = the new Mania. I'm even willing to be either Niara or Giselle, because both names are so cool.

    By Blogger Brittle, at 8:53 AM  

  • Good track! Though even on this one I percieve the kind of restraint/lack of gloss you are talking about. Hope it's a single.

    Isn't Frank totally flopping so far (at least comercially)? It always makes me a bit nervous when a Xenomaia track doesn't do well on the charts.

    By Blogger daavid, at 11:30 AM  

  • Yeah, the first single "I'm Not Shy" (which Mania originally recorded, btw) crept into the UK charts at #40. Which may mean that more singles aren't forthcoming.

    By Blogger Brittle, at 3:58 PM  

  • Great post!! I am so happy you stoppped to think about Frank. Every group deserves that.

    I love the trio of "Never.." "Silence" and this one. What I did not say on my own post was that "Silence" is a story from my life when I was 24. Minus the get-over-me-or-this-ends bit! Suffice it to say that one can get things done over lunch. Read into that as you will. :)

    By Blogger xolondon, at 9:52 AM  

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