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(BiFi Records 032 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 3/10/2004)
Some thirty years ago, inspired by the Beatles forays into classically-influenced, elaborately-arranged music, there arose a style that came to be known as "art rock," best personified by the bands Yes and Emerson, Lake & Palmer, who became staples on the stadium rock circuit. They and the genre were hugely popular, before waning in the 1980s and to remain as a kind of cult phenomenon.
But while the term "art rock" came to be associated with a specific largely British-originated style, the term does have a much wider potential meaning. Some of groups that appeared in the wake of the punk rockers that were the antithesis of symphonic stadium rock did attract the term among some music critics for the somewhat theatrical or iconoclastic music they did. Some called what Patti Smith and Talking Heads, and later Jeff Buckley, were doing "art rock," and I think it's a valid term.
I am reminded of all that by this week's album, which I by any measure could be called "art rock," combining elaborate arrangements with the kind of theatricality of the post punk art rock school. I suppose they could also be called one of the first new interesting art rock bands of the 21st Century. They call themselves Frankenixon, and they hail from Iowa. They have just released their fourth recording, their second full-length CD called Amorphous.
Frankenixon got their start in Des Moines 1999 when Evelyn Finch and Joe Kiplinger, after having left music school, decided to form a band to do original music and obscure covers. Eventually bassist Ben Baier and drummer Weston Dailey joined to form the current lineup. The band has evolved a distinctive sound, with Ms. Finch dominating with her songwriting, strong piano work and slightly quirky vocals -- combining a bit of the chanteuse with the edginess of the alternative rock scene. She alternately imparts a kind of theatrical ennui and can move into more energetic mode. The band's music is in turns pop-influenced, hinting at a kind of cabaret sound, and then running to the kind of elaborate arrangements in polyrhythms that would be right at home among the veteran symphonic progressive rockers. With the piano being at the center of the sound, this CD has a decidedly acoustic quality, even though guitarist Kiplinger can bring in distorted sounds. The result is a thoroughly engaging CD that full of interesting and sophisticated music that can still be a little rough around the edges.
For this recording, the band travelled to San Francisco last September and apparently had only 10 days to make the album. Ms. Finch recalls the experience in her liner notes, saying that the process was an emotionally trying one. She also makes partial explanations of the often cryptic lyrics, saying that the songs were based on her "love life, [her] mother's death, and [her] hatred of the industry," presumably the music industry. Sometimes her intent is clear in the lyrics, but often it is not, made even more obscure by the fact that words Ms. Finch sings are often a little hard to make out, and there are no printed lyrics on the CD or on their website. But that can fit into the generally impressionistic direction of the album.
Leading off is a piece called Word to Confuse, which summarizes the curious blend that Frankenixon represents. There is a kind of theatricality to the song, while Ms. Finch's vocals maintain an alternative rock edge. <<>>
A composition called Loathing has a musical backing that is very much in keeping with the title of the songs. Ms. Finch's piano work provides the ominous mood while Kiplinger's guitar serves as electric foil to the grand piano. <<>>
There are a couple of tracks that epitomize the art rock aspect of Frankenixon. One is piece called Neuotic/Cynical #1. After the very dark and brooding opening section... <<>> the piece launches into an excellent progressive rock interlude recalling the groups like Gentle Giant. <<>>
Frankenixon apparently absorbed quite a bit of the British art rock scene, including their more pop-oriented facets. Due Process, which may be the song about Ms. Finch's mother's passing, combines the bouncy quality of an old Beatles tune with Ms. Finch's slightly raw vocals. It's another study in contrasts. <<>>
Ms. Finch rails against the music business on the song called Garbage Machine. With its sophisticated, convoluted musical setting, Frankenixon need have no worry that the song will become a commercial hit and end up being a self-contradiction. <<>>
For me one of the more fascinating pieces on this generally intriguing recording is one based on a book of fairly tales, One of the Clock. Frankenixon makes it as scary as their group name. <<>>
Also showing Frankenixon's credibility as an old-fashioned art rock band is the track Impasse, which is mostly instrumental. <<>>
There are two entirely instrumental pieces. One is an acoustic guitar solo, and the other, called Rhodes ends the album and features the kind of electric piano after which the tune was named.
Frankenixon's name is enough to evoke a definite image in the minds of people of a certain generation, and indeed their music can sometimes be a little scary. But their creativity, solid musicianship and lack of and scruples about breaking pop music conventions, along with their distinctive acoustic piano-dominated sound, makes their new CD Amorphous quite memorable. They are still a relatively young band, not all their ideas work to perfection, and Evelyn Finch's vocals can be a bit of an acquired taste. But she is also a charismatic performer, and the wealth of musical ideas demonstrated on their new CD is impressive. The result is 21st century art rock in the literal sense.
Our grade for sound quality is an "A minus." Kudos are deserved for a dynamic range much better than the dismal standard of contemporary pop. It helps to highlight the music's sometimes dramatic ebb and flow. But the electronic effects on Ms. Finch's vocals can a bit annoying at times, and the piano, so central to the band's sound, was compressed too much.
There has been a great tradition of worthwhile Midwest rock, but Frankenixon's category-defying art rock is yet another stereotype that the band defies. More power to them.
(c) Copyright 2004 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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