Friday, February 24, 2012

SHOW REVIEW: Frankie Rose w/ Dive and Night Manager

There's a certain art to being cool. It requires equal parts detachment, judgement, untouchability, and flippancy. Being cool might make you the envy of your less-than-cool counterparts, but it's ultimately an empty, lonely act. Because being vulnerable isn't cool, being cool entails keeping others at bay, elevating yourself to a level above the uncool, refusing to let anyone in, and never showing emotion or excitement because it is somehow unbecoming. It's a problem that is unique to my generation; though real “cool” barely exists anymore except as a marketing concept many of us have been posturing ever since, fearful of ever revealing the uncool sides of ourselves, deprived of true connection in order to maintain the illusion of coolness, feeling pain only when the facade fails us. In the real world, this looks like a dimly lit bar in which everyone nurses PBR from a can and no one talks to anyone. And in that bar, Frankie Rose fills the jukebox.

As a drummer for Vivian Girls, Dum Dum Girls, and Crystal Stilts, Frankie Rose was at the forefront of the resurgence of a noise pop movement that took its cues from the intertwining jangle and grit of sixties garage rock and girl groups. In recording her first album as Frankie Rose and the Outs, she never strayed far from this sound. Her vocals had begun to take on a dreamy sort of submerged quality with her first solo album, recorded under the moniker Frankie Rose and the Outs. But by and large the album, while expertly crafted, was nothing new. It was perfect in terms of continuing the sound and vibe that made Frankie something of a household name in indie rock circles. To some, the resume she'd built was not only impressive but impenetrable, unapproachable. But to be honest, it felt cold and rehearsed and well-worn to me, not a record I could get behind on an emotional level. It wasn't bad, but it it wasn't life-altering and ultimately I lost interest. To join the Frankie cult I would have had to buy dark sunglasses and a leather jacket and thrown away all my clothing that wasn't black, and I probably would have had to spit on anyone who talked about how into Adele they were. But what I really wanted was license to feel and share freely with my peers, not judge them or their tastes, not act like mine are better than anyone else's.

Here is what I like to imagine happened next. Frankie was walking through the graffiti-scrawled streets of Williamsburg when a white light enveloped her and suddenly, the Earth was no more than a blue speck far below. Her abductors, benevolent alien beings with glowing solar plexuses, took her on an epic interplanetary voyage in which she witnessed incomprehensible forms of life and their bizarre customs, each of which held more meaning and beauty than her indie-rock royalty act. She was shown the error of her ways and told to go forth to the earthly masses and write an album with some heart, lest she be re-abducted and dissected. No longer obsessed with being cool and furthering her own reputation as purveyor of such, Frankie Rose came back to Brooklyn and wrote her gorgeous sophomore album, Interstellar.

While this may be a fanciful version of the truth, the end result is the same.  Interstellar, out now on Slumberland Records, gives having your head in the clouds a whole new meaning.  Frankie's vocals sparkle and swirl like gauzy nebula gasses, the stuff of galaxies being born. The gritty guitars have been replaced by poppy riffs and spacious synths that reveal yearning and hope and a red-hot emotional core. Every second feels expansive, reminding us that the big bang is still happening and that even as we rotate on this rock we are hurtling through space. The lyrical content isn't particularly heavy and remains relatively carefree, but that's not to say it suffers from any of that.  Rather, it feels much more relatable than anything she's written to date. There are instances (particularly “Know Me” “Daylight” and “Night Swim”) that recall the most impassioned moments of new wave, though that heartfelt artfulness permeates each new song. Tracks like “Gospel/Grace” are still informed by the jangle pop of Frankie's former work but here she has made everything bigger, warmer, more urgent and airy. Closing track “The Fall” is like listening to a dream – the kind you go back to sleep for so you can keep dreaming it. Its hushed vocals unspool over a simplistic but indelible guitar line, diffused synths and a droning cello reminiscent of Arther Russell's "This Is How We Walk On The Moon". Listening to Interstellar basically made me reevaluate every snap judgement I'd ever made about Frankie or her tunes. There's a line in title track and album opener that sums up the whole endeavor perfectly - “weightless, free from predictable ways”. Amen, sister, amen.

I got tickets to attend the release party for Interstellar at Knitting Factory, expecting some grand announcement, an ushering in to a new age of Frankie Rose. She's one of the most influential musicians in the Brooklyn indie scene, so perhaps we'd all be given a crystal and told to let our hearts breathe, to embrace each other and stop worrying about our haircuts. Night Manager opened with an enthusiastic batch of precocious noise pop anthems.  Some bands get on stage and act like it's the most boring thing in the world to be on stage, which is always annoying because everyone at one point or another wants to be a rock star. Night Manager can't have had long to fantasize about such things – I'd say the average age of the five band members couldn't have been much over twenty – and that youthful exuberance was their strongest point. Their lead singer's vibe was somewhere between Bethany Cosentino and Anne Margaret but I probably only make that connection because I've been watching the third season of Mad Men while battling a head cold.

I had high hopes for Dive, a(nother) Beach Fossils side project whose reverb-drenched singles are catchy and evocative of epiphanies had while staring at clouds. From the looks of it, these guys really struggle to get dressed (evidenced by the rubber bands utilized to hold the guitarist's pants in place) and speaking of haircuts – yikes. While their shoegazey tracks have a just-woke-up sort of haze, Dive's performance was so boisterous it could have been a commercial for 5-hour energy shooters. The kinetic set was incredibly fun to watch and included an unrecognizable take on a Nirvana song and a pornographic tee-shirt.  Dive's debut EP is scheduled for release next month on Captured Tracks, and seeing them play the material in such a spirited manner has me psyched for it.

Frankie Rose took the stage just after 11PM with four band members, opening with the title track from the new record. The stage was bathed in starry projections, but there were no house lights at all on Frankie or the majority of the band, which reduced everyone but the drummer to indistinct silhouettes. That might have been cool for a song or two, but they played the entire set that way, and it was slightly off-putting. Much like when you spend a hot day at the zoo and all the animals are sleeping inside fake caves, the lack of anything to rest eyes on was disappointing and disconnecting. Perhaps the lighting guy was in the bathroom, thinking he'd have plenty of time to light the stage once the band really got going. But he never had a chance – the show was over practically before it began. The crowd, myself included, was just settling in to Frankie's performance, and then it abruptly ended after they'd played for just under half an hour.

I've seen some short sets, but this one left me stunned in terms of its brevity. You'd think that with two albums of material she could have fleshed it out for another fifteen minutes, even with stage banter or something. I didn't even recognize the new songs; I assumed she'd not played many of them but was later informed she'd played seven of the ten new tracks from Interstellar. The thing is, they were interpreted for the stage in such a way that they might have belonged on older albums, in the work she'd done with bands prior to striking out solo, in the detached, too-cool-for-school manner of everything that had come before. There was no trouble taken to document the evolution and preserve the openness that makes Interstellar such a great album; instead I was reminded of all the reasons I'd felt put off by Frankie in the past. She returned to the stage apologetically to play one more track (video of the encore is below) and finally asked for the house lights to be turned up a bit, though it was done begrudgingly by the house.

My overall impression was that Frankie is somehow afraid to bring her newfound sincerity into the spotlight both literally and figuratively. She was hiding the entire time – playing in the dark, rushing through the set as if nervous or embarrassed, and masking the intimate vibe of the new record behind the practiced ways of her rock-n-roll persona. Perhaps this was an effort to make the material more stage-ready but for me it had a numbing effect. I can only hope that in time she'll figure out how to parlay the stirring ardency that makes Interstellar so salient, will become comfortable with letting any pretense fall away and be truly present in the new material. I can imagine that day – Frankie stands on stage in a halo of white, assuredly plucking each note from her guitar strings, backed only by atmospheric keys and somber drums, letting Interstellar truly explode – vulnerable, earnest and far beyond the trappings of coolness.

1 comment:

  1. Great review, written with both humour and sensitivity. However, the idea of "cool" is not really unique to your generation - it has gotten passed down and I think we can all remember what you described in the opening paragraph. Now everyone will need to go to the review and read it!