It's been hard to get excited about rock and roll lately, what with the regular coronation of self-important, emo-flavored clans whose sound and fury (and eyeliner and top hats) signify so little.
The fact is, if you showed up at some fête and saw one of these hipster outfits performing, you'd probably call a friend — "Hey, I'm at this party and you'll never guess who's playing — The Smirks!" — but after a couple of songs you'd also probably drift off to make more phone calls.
If The Fratellis were playing, though, you'd turn your phone off. You might even dash it to the ground and stomp on it for good measure. This would be unfortunate only because The Fratellis now offer several of their infectious tunes as ringtones.
NME recently named this Glasgow trio the Best New Band in Britain, which is rather a shame since that U.K. publication's reputation for lavishing hyperbolic accolades on cool-but-underwhelming bands has created something of an Emperor's New Clothes syndrome. A 2007 Brit Award probably won't help the situation.
Rest assured, however, that this is not your typical Next Big Thing guitar-thrashing import.
Their songs suggest the whirling, kaleidoscopic, hormonal rush of the midway, with all its sugary delights and seedy dangers.You might have heard one of their songs on an iTunes commercial, but neither are they a symbol for the fragmented world of downloading. In fact, they've made a mighty fine album, Costello Music (Cherrytree/Island/Interscope), that embraces the best of the past while paving new ground. No surprise, then, that classic-rock guru Pete Townshend has embraced them and even sat in for a TV performance of one of their songs.
According to their press bio, the three met while working various vertiginous rides at a traveling carnival, and their songs duly suggest the whirling, kaleidoscopic, hormonal rush of the midway, with all its sugary delights and seedy dangers.
Expertly produced by Tony Hoffer (Beck), Costello is a rarity in these overpacked, underdeveloped days — a solid, utterly satisfying disc. Among the standouts: the churning opener, "Henrietta" (their first U.K. single, about an amorous fan with a jealous husband); the irresistibly bouncy domestic single "Chelsea Dagger"; the zigzagging, tribally exuberant "Flathead"; the stunningly sweet "Whistle for the Choir," with its big, heartsick refrain recalling the sincerest of the sweater-clad Merseybeat mongers of yore; the propulsive, ridiculously catchy "For the Girl"; the dark, desperate and seductive "Doginabag"; the breakneck "Creepin' Up the Backstairs"; and plenty more besides. The sound is lively and spacious, garnishing the band's smart dynamics with classic reverb and other sparkly touches.
Recalling the Celtic-punk energy of The Pogues, the semi-acoustic strut of The Violent Femmes, the brainy, punchy pop of The Buzzcocks and Supergrass, and the jaded melodic smarts of pub-rockers like The Faces and Ian Hunter, The Fratellis kick up a merry racket while managing to paint funny, poignant pictures of love, intoxication and other misadventures of youth.
The high-spirited tunes on Costello Music inspire the downing of beer and possibly an ill-advised plunge into a sweaty crowd of revelers. And there's no need to study up on the lyrics — the joyous "la la la la" refrains and handclaps invite all and sundry to join in. Which they'll undoubtedly be doing as the band hits the road for a U.S. tour with Black Rebel Motorcycle Club.
Singer-songwriter Jon, bassist Barry and drummer Mince have all adopted the phony fraternal surname Fratelli in the spirit of another scruffy band of hookmeisters, The Ramones. It suits their unpretentious, workmanlike approach: no grand, glittery statements of purpose, just good times. Most songs clock in at under three and a half minutes, though by the time they end, you've been rocked to your core.
Over the course of several albums, Detroit-born, L.A.-based singer-songwriter Michelle Penn has established her pop-rock bona fides with sturdy melodies and lush arrangements, but her new, self-produced disc, Red Five (Pissy Missy Music), is a quantum leap befitting the Star Wars association of its title.
Penn has stepped up as one of the best singers in the genre.Not only are her songs sharper and more relentlessly catchy than ever, but Penn (who has lately been touring with the Go-Go's and Jason Mraz) has stepped up as one of the best singers in the genre. Her sweet, smoky voice inescapably suggests the great Chrissie Hynde, and Penn doesn't run from her influences; indeed, Pretenders guitarist Adam Seymour appears on Red Five and even offers a filigree from The Pretenders' "Cuban Slide." It isn't just Penn's timbre that recalls Hynde; she slides from steely defiance to melting tenderness with a similar ease.
Too many of today's pop singers, especially the female ones, favor breathy vocal affectations, histrionic phrasing and the dreaded pronunciation of "me" as "may" (the long "e" tends to disrupt their pitch). But these shortcomings are merely symptoms of a larger problem: Radio's too-eager embrace of the super-young means that a high percentage of the voices we hear singing about deep emotions lack the life experience to say anything meaningful, let alone wring any nuance out of the sonic kibble their handlers feed them. Which makes Penn's knowing, womanly vocals such a breath of fresh air. With little fanfare, she packs real feeling and sensuality into every phrase — without ever distracting from the choruses of superb tunes like "I Know," "Think Twice," "Go Wrong," "Wake Up" and a handful of others that I defy you to get out of your head once they get in.
In fact, Red Five more or less redeems a subgenre (Hot AC, as it's known in the radio biz) I believed to be utterly exhausted. It's the sound of an artist who knows who she is and is now prepared to show the posers how it's done.
Jim Mills has been a fixture on L.A.'s rock scene for years, though his sound has been anything but fixed.
F R Double E is a weirdly gorgeous world all its own, a dreamlike terrain of twisty hooks, stacked harmonies, spiraling guitar solos and otherworldly piano that is at once expansive and intimate.A founding member of squall-thrall hipsters Drill Team and sometime amanuensis of harmonizing superheroes The Wondermints, Mills has explored everything from power pop to experimental noise; he's one of those musicians who can play virtually any song you can name, whether it's an obscure psychedelic nugget or an arena-rock perennial. Adeptly employing a staggering range of instruments, he has emerged once again with a true solo album, F R Double E (Commune Records), recorded under the name Extra.
Writing, producing, playing and singing every note, Mills salutes such major influences as late Pink Floyd founder Syd Barrett; the tumbling, baroque exertions of The Who's middle period; David Bowie's glam-alien peak; Beach Boys founder Brian Wilson's teenage symphonies to God; all manner of '70s troubadours (Nilsson in particular springs to mind); prog-rockers like Yes and Genesis; and too many others to enumerate, yet he manages to transcend pastiche completely.
F R Double E is a weirdly gorgeous world all its own, a dreamlike terrain of twisty hooks, stacked harmonies, spiraling guitar solos and otherworldly piano that is at once expansive and intimate. "I am music and that's all I know," Mills sings at the end of opening track "Forward to Mono," and this is as good a manifesto as any for the republic of Extra. These creations invariably take wild and unbidden turns, such as the swinging, Zappa-esque keyboard interlude in "The Medley I Warned You About," which segues to a lyrical recitation of the value of Pi before giving way to a blunt "whatever." A personal favorite is the sprawling piano-bar narrative "Do You Know What You're Saying, Eddie?" Over the course of its nearly seven minutes, the composition travels from hushed falsetto-and-baby-grand phrases to soaring, chiming, string-laden pop à la Todd Rundgren. The dreamy "Minutes" pairs acoustic strums, a listless groove and sleigh bells, then eases into a country-fried piano solo of meandering simplicity before launching into a sweet and soulful section that would be called a chorus (or a great chorus) if it were repeated. But Mills is F R double E of the gravitational pull of convention. In fact, his preferred song structure is the suite — instead of cycling comfortably from verse to chorus to verse, Extra's pieces flame out a section at a time, like a spaceship uncoupling.
It may not be your cup of tea. But if it is, you'll want frequent refills.