Thursday, October 14, 2010

Review Number Tres: Donavon Frankenreiter, Glow

This review may have never been published. It is definitely not online and I was out of town the day it may have ran in the print section. My EDITORS did not like it, possibly because it is mean:

The way that music reviews work here at the ol’ badger-herald is simple. Our editors read out a bunch of album titles, and we (the writers) raise our hands and pick the ones we want to review. There wasn’t anything that particularly piqued my interest this week so I raised my hand and accepted the assignment of reviewing Donavon Frankenreiter’s latest LP Glow. Since I didn’t know anything about Frankenreiter at this point, I scoured the internet searching for information on this man of mystery. I was a bit perturbed when I saw that Donavon used to be signed to Jack Johnson’s Brushfire Records, simply because if I’m going to listen to an unassuming guy sing unassuming songs with an unassuming acoustic guitar, I’d prefer to just listen to Johnson himself. But I decided to keep an my mind open to Donavon’s message and I’m glad I did because I learned a lot. Here are some of the things I learned:

Donavon Frankenreiter wants to see you glow. Trouble is, he doesn’t know exactly what that means. According the title track, “the more things change, the more they shine.” So it’s possible that Donavon Frankenreiter wants to see you change as much as possible to increase your glow, which is a bit of a confusing sentiment if he’s attempting to be romantic.

Donavon Frankenreiter knows it’s hard to let go (on the fifth track, “Push”). You and he keep breaking up and making up and it’s really getting old. You can’t keep pushing him down like this. You’re not letting him hold your hand and play in your park. But you know what, it’s okay. At the end of the song, nothing has happened. You guys are still just making up to break up. Just like Method Man.

Donavon Frankenreiter wants you to do what the eighth track is called and “Dance like Nobody’s Watching.” I found this to be a particularly admirable, not to mention original, sentiment. Why hasn’t anyone ever put this on a poster, or a facebook profile or something?

Donavon Frankenreiter posits (on the track “Hold On”) that “if everyone lived just like they felt, oh there would be so much love, that hate would just have to melt.” I agree. People should start doing what they want more often. If everyone was doing exactly what they felt like doing, no one would ever get mad at anyone else. (In Frankenreiter’s defense, this may very well be true if you live in Hawaii.)

Donavon Frankenreiter reminds me of the guy with the guitar at the party trying to pick up chicks. Not because he is that guy though. He’s the other guy, the one next door to the popular sleaze, with half the audience, and a quarter of the talent. Jack Johnson’s best songs are either pretty stories (“Taylor”) or detailed, romantic sketches (“Banana pancakes”). The man can get a little boring, but even at his worst, he’s way better than his surfing buddy Frankenreiter who on Glow fails to say something noteworthy lyrically or musically. If the things I learned from Frankenreiter appeal to you, and you’d love to delve in deeper, by all means, run to the nearest record store and pick up Glow immediately. If not, maybe try someone (anyone) else.

Music Review Dos: Ben Folds and Nick Hornby, Lonely Avenue

The novelist Nick Hornby has proven himself to be singularly talented at capturing the voice of a fanatic. In “Fever Pitch,” he writes from the perspective of a football obsessive. In “How to Be Good”, he impersonates a woman who is fascinated by her own morality. In the famous “High Fidelity,” he writes from the perspective of a man who knows everything about music and nothing about women, and is equally compelled by both topics. So it’s unsurprising that, on Lonely Avenue, his new collaborative album with Ben Folds, the most successful songs are written from the perspective of characters that are driven by a singular, overwhelming focus.

Most of these character studies make for immensely successful songs. “Claire’s Ninth” turns a sympathetic third-person perspective on the eponymous Claire, who’s being taken out for her birthday by her newly divorced dad. Unfortunately for Claire, her father can’t help but focus on trying to get the waitress’s number and thus even on her special day, the focus is inevitably on her parents.

On the short, upbeat album opener, “A Working Day,” Hornby ridicules anonymous online criticism with such tongue in cheek lines as “A guy on the net thinks I suck and he should know/He’s got his own blog.” Perhaps the most poignant character study is made in the song “Belinda” about a washed up musician whose only hit song is dedicated to a woman he foolishly chose to leave.

Unfortunately, some of the studies are a bit too bold. “Levi Johnston’s Blues” qualifies as a misstep, as Folds tries to craft an anthem around Hornby’s faux sympathetic lyrics about being “a f*ckin redneck” who likes to “hang out with the boys, play some hockey, and kill some moose.” Even though some of these lyrics are lifted straight from Johnson’s Myspace page, they still come off as a patronizing attempt to simplify a public figure’s life.

A similar mistake occurs on “Doc Potus,” a song that’s probably meant as a tribute to the groundbreaking songwriter who wrote for Elvis and Ray Charles among others. Due to the necessarily short running time of a pop song, Hornby is forced to paint Potus with a broad brush as a man who wrote great songs in order to escape the bitterness of living in a wheelchair.

The music on the album is typical of Ben Folds moving from upbeat, jaunty piano songs to slower ballads. Folds is a practiced piano player and instead of showing off here, he fits his musical knowledge to the lyrics at hand. His voice is a bit of a double-edged sword; a juvenile whine that provides the right tone on the more caustic, witty songs, but can undermine the atmosphere on the songs that are a bit more serious. However, even Folds’ nasal voice doesn’t stop him from knocking the album’s highlight out of the park. “Picture Window” is a gorgeous ballad about the power of hope that’s somehow not corny at.

On paper, Lonely Avenue seems like a bold experiment, a collaboration between a practiced musician and a virgin songwriter. However, both Hornby and Folds have played their roles with élan, and the result is a strong, intelligent album that’s well worth a listen.

Badger Herald Reviews Uno: Michael Franti & Spearhead, The Sound of Sunshine

I'm working as a music critic and possibly a columnist for my school paper, the eminent Badger-Herald. Here is my first review:

At Rothbury Music Festival in 2008, pseudo political reggae-rocker Michael Franti displayed a knack for impressions, showcasing an impressive Kermit the Frog and Cookie Monster in the middle of his set. On their new album, The Sound of Sunshine the 44-year-old and his band Spearhead display a similar ability, alternately producing Sublime, U2, Jack Johnson and John Mayer rip-offs. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The first single and title track is a pleasant, bouncy affair, in which Franti channels Bradley Nowell’s sound while substituting optimism for melancholy. The anthemic “I’ll be Waiting” sounds like a more agreeable Bono. And the down-tempo “Gloria” is a pretty acoustic ballad, executed perfectly.

Unfortunately, Franti does not show the same gift for songwriting as he does for sonic imitation. His lyrics are insubstantial and vague at best and contemptibly schmaltzy at worst. On the odious “Headphones” Franti asks his romantic partner to “Plug your headphones straight into my heart/ Because I want you to know what I’m talking about.” There’s nothing wrong with this sentiment, but the way that it’s expressed makes you want to plug your headphones into a jack that’s not playing a Michael Franti song.

On the self-described “rock n roll with soul” jam “The Thing That Helps Me Get Through” Franti discusses his worldview: ““It’s a crazy world, a mixed up world, involving politics and the underworld.” But don’t worry. The subtle complexities of politics and the underworld won’t matter according to the chorus, which exclaims that “Nobody knows what you doin’ when you do to me, the thing that helps me get through.” Franti is well-known as a politically conscious musician and activist, and yet lyrics like these make him seem naïve, if not downright stupid.

The Sound of Sunshine is a follow-up to the band’s 2008 effort All Rebel Rockers, their most popular album ever, which at its peak reached number 38 on the Billboard 200 pop charts. That success, along with the success of the hit single “Say Hey (I Love You),” has clearly influenced the new album, as most of the songs avoid the political themes that Franti has grappled with in the past and instead deal with enjoying, celebrating and loving life. However, this overwhelming optimism can also be attributed to Franti’s recent near-death experience, which occurred when his appendix ruptured on tour. After undergoing major surgery, Franti told Blender magazine that he was now more interested in writing songs that were inspiring to him that would help him get through the day.

This positive outlook on life, combined with the newly redefined message of the band ensure that The Sound of Sunshine is a listenable, pleasant affair. Despite the lack of depth or substance, the album remains an optimistic, fun, 43 minute experience. These songs are really more about family and the vague overwhelming power of love than they are about anything important or even specific. But at the end of day, the music is likable and diverting. With The Sound of Sunshine Michael Franti and Spearhead have created a passable imitation of a good album, one that fans of lighthearted, bouncy reggae-rock are likely to enjoy.