I first became aware of Frankmusik (real name Vincent Frank) because he provided a remix of the Pet Shop Boys single ‘Love etc’. After that, he became one of those people whose names just seem to crop up from time to time, far enough above the radar that you remember who they are, but far enough below that you can’t remember exactly where you’ve heard about them. Then, when he released his debut album Complete Me on the 3rd August, he became rather more prominent, so I decided to take a listen and see what I thought.
By the way, I’d just like to stress that the reasons I started to pay more attention to Frankmusik (and, indeed, my motives for first listening to his album) are completely unconnected to the fact that, around the time the album was released, I stumbled across this picture. Or this one. Or this one. Or this one. Or this one. Or this one. Or, for that matter, either of these, even though he has, slightly disappointingly, got all his clothes on in them. Clearly, I can’t have influenced by these photos, because if I had that would mean I was one of those shallow poofs whose musical affection can be bought (or at least rented) with a picture of a cute arse and a pretty face, and obviously I’m not that kind of person, oh dear me, no, whatever gave you that impression, etc, etc…
Anyway, the key thing isn’t that Frankmusik is one of those unusual straight men who seems happy to strip off at the merest mention of the words ‘photo shoot for gay magazine’. And even though I was interested to hear an album by a fellow mentalist – he says he suffers from anxiety, but given that he’s been hospitalised once and attempted suicide twice, there’s possibly a little more to it than that – that’s not really enough either. No, the key question is whether or not the album’s actually any good. So, is it?
Well, the first thing to say is that it’s perhaps not the kind of album you’re expecting after I’ve just told you that it’s creator has twice attempted suicide. It is, for the most part, a collection of upbeat, 80s/ early 90s-sounding electro pop. The album touches on darker emotions from time to time, which is part of its strength – relentlessly upbeat albums always start to drag after a while – but it wears its emotion lightly, and is about as far-removed from self-indulgent misery-wallowing as you can get. He may have remixed Radiohead (and really rather well, too), but Frankmusik doesn’t occupy territory as dark as they do, which is actually something of a shame – I like dark electro pop.
I’m going to go through the album track-by-track, and I’ll provide links (to Last FM) for the individual songs that I think are most worth listening to. (I’m not just providing a link to the whole album because I’m worried that, if I do, you’ll just listen to the first couple of songs, realise they’re not much cop, and never get as far as the good stuff.) Ok, first up:
In Step: This seems like a fairly odd choice to begin the album. The main riff is pretty catchy (which is probably what got it its place as album opener), but it has one of the most basic tunes, and also one of the less-polished vocal performances, on the album. Still, there are interesting things happening with sampled vocals in the background that raise it above the realm of the ordinary. A major downside is that, at least to my ears, this track (like many others on the album) seems to be mixed very treble-heavy, to the extent that the bass is at times rather indistinct. This does help to make it sound authentically 80s, but it might have been better if the homage to that era hadn’t included the technical limitations. Probably one of the most intriguing things about the song are its lyrics – I doubt many people would have chosen to open their first album with a song that worries about whether they’re too old (at 23!) to still be relevant.
Better Off As Two: This is another of the less good songs, I think. It’s up-tempo enough (and I love the heavily processed ‘dum-dum-dum-dum’ backing vocals), but it’s also rather generic. In fact, it sounds rather like it was designed to be the song playing on a radio that no-one’s listening to. Still, it does have a much better vocal performance. It’s not completely free of the transatlantic twang and over-emphatic delivery that have become a standard part of the manufactured pop sound, but the individuality of his voice still shines through. Basically, listening to this you’re acutely aware that you’re listening to an actual, individual person, not a PopClone 2000 (as marketed, of course, by Simon Cowell).
Gotta Boyfriend? (listen to the song here): Well, this is the point at which the album really gets going, in my opinion. The song is much better produced, and better arranged, too. There’s a proper bass part (that’s properly audible), and some gorgeously shiny synthesiser sounds, especially in the chorus. In fact, it’s a mark of the increased sophistication of this song that the major synth line in the chorus is a counter-melody that works very well with the rather simpler vocal line. There’s no question that when you listen to this song you’re hearing something that’s been heavily influenced by the 1980s, but it is just an influence, not a slavish copy, and that’s demonstrated by the way the synthesiser sounds are fairly unsubtle (as they were in the 80s), but are treated and processed in a way that wasn’t usual back then. I do have a couple of reservations about the song – he obviously couldn’t think of a good way to end it, and the transitions from his main vocal register into his falsetto aren’t especially well handled – but it’s basically just a good, catchy pop tune.
Confusion Girl (Shame Shame Shame) (listen to the song here): This continues the increased quality of the last track. In fact, it’s probably a better song, at least in terms of song writing, than ‘Gotta Boyfriend?’, although for some reason I don’t like it as much. That’s unfair, as there’s real depth and variety in the instrumentation, and the transition from the relatively simple verses to the choruses is well handled, creating a genuinely exciting lift. And yet… I think some of my objections probably stem from the fact that, lyrically, it’s slightly nasty, with fairly heavy criticism of someone who seems to be a real person, and that makes me slightly uncomfortable. If that is where my discomfort comes from then that’s in itself quite interesting, because that feeling is certainly heightened by the contrast between the negative sentiment and the bright and breezy musical style.
Your Boy (listen to the song here): This is the first real change of pace on the album, and the first ballad. As such it’s the point at which things can start to go horribly wrong on electropop albums, with a rapid descent into a sea of schmaltz and saccharine strings. Luckily, that doesn’t happen here. It begins very simply, with a piano and a single vocal, and manages to be genuinely sad, because it suggests that only the very surface layers of a much deeper emotion are being expressed. This makes a nice contrast to the over-emoting that infects a lot of the pop music that’s around at the moment, and is also a technique that’s especially well suited to electronica. The choruses are a little more bombastic in style and production, but the step change between them is sensitively handled, and serves to give the song a sense of direction and purpose. Vocally this is one of the better performances. The transitions into and out of falsetto are done well, and the plain and straightforward nature of the delivery helps to heighten the emotional charge. All in all this is one of the songs on the album that most suggests that Frankmusik has great potential, both as a songwriter and a performer.
When You’re Around: This on the other hand… Well, let’s just say it’s built around a sample of the riff from ‘Golden Brown’ by The Stranglers. If even the mention of that song has made you shudder with involuntary horror (and if it hasn’t you clearly have nerves of steel) then you’ll probably find that this isn’t the track for you. To be fair, the chorus has nothing to do with the sample, and isn’t too bad. As a filler, this song does what it needs to, but I couldn’t in all good conscience recommend that anyone listens to it.
3 Little Words: This is probably Frankmusik’s best-known song. It isn’t bad, by any means, but it does seem pretty ordinary to me. As I listen to it, it’s hard to shake the impression that it’s been put together with a conscious emphasis on what needs to be put into a song in order to have a hit come out the other end. The result is that it’s rather too frenetic and obvious. There are nice touches – there’s a good bit in the middle where the instrumentation is stripped right back to a fairly aggressively played bass guitar – but again this isn’t a highlight.
Wonder Woman (listen to the song here): As a nice contrast, we now come to what is one of the best tracks on the album. There are faults, particularly in the production – this is one of the worst offenders in the ‘mixed too treble-heavy’ category – and it’s another song that he clearly had no real idea how to finish. On the other hand, there’s a nice syncopated piano part in the verses, a good choppy drum rhythm, and a very catchy chorus. There’s even a break/ bridge that’s well integrated into the song, and manages to develop the musical and lyrical theme in new directions while still sounding like an organic part of the whole. This is properly sophisticated songwriting, and it’s a shame it’s let down by a rather cheesy arrangement/ production. This could have been the beyond-question standout moment of the album, but as it stands it doesn’t fully live up to that potential.
Complete Me (listen to the song here): It’s always a mistake, I think, to name an album after one of the songs appearing on it, because it always leads to an expectation that the title track holds the key to the album as a whole, or at least that it’s the best song – in other words, it sets up expectations that it’s very difficult not to end up disappointing. Given that standard caveat, this song actually comes across pretty well. It has a faint whiff of trying too hard, both in the whimsical-bordering-on-twee verses and the slightly-too-emphatic choruses, and suffers lyrically from a feeling that it’s straining a little too hard to try and achieve profundity. But, on the other hand, it has, in the verses, a subtle and supple piano part that sounds impressively difficult to play, but is well executed. The instrumentation is also well handled, with a nice recapitulation-with-development thing going on during the verses. There’s no getting away from the fact that there’s a stop-start gap between the verses and the chorus, and it might have been nice to see an attempt to weave the two together more effectively, but the disjuncture does have the effect of adding a lot of drama. On balance, I think I would argue that it’s a little too dramatic, at least for my taste – there are points when it seems to be reaching towards a Bonnie Tyler-esque power ballad, and, with the best will in the world, and even if you like power ballads, Frankmusik is yet to develop a large enough vocal presence to carry off that kind of a performance entirely convincingly.
Vacant Heart (listen to the song here): This is probably my favourite song on the album. It’s another ballad, like ‘Your Boy’, and like that song it’s well-executed. The instrumentation is well handled, and it nicely overcomes the stop-start problem between verse and chorus with some well worked out but simple links between the two. One of the things that makes the song great are its lyrics, that have exactly the right amount of generalised emotion for a song like this, without coming across as overwritten. I was going to quote from them here, but on their own they look like they’re full of cheap sentimentality. I think what rescues the song from that is that it’s sung with absolute conviction, and like it actually matters; it’s certainly, for me, one of the best vocal performances on the album.
Time Will Tell: This song, however, is actively bad – it’s the only track on the album that is. You know there was that moment around the end of the 80s and the start of the 90s when the music industry realised that rap music was getting too popular to ignore? But they didn’t want to go the whole hog and actually release rap music – it was made by scary black people, after all – so instead you started to get these awful, dreadful, desperate attempts to add a bit of what they hoped was a ‘rap sound’ and a ‘rap attitude’ to songs by mainstream (i.e. white) artists? Basically they took rap, carefully removed any hint of political anger or social injustice, cut off its balls to make sure it was completely emasculated and non-threatening, and served up the anodyne pap that resulted. It’s the process that took in Straight Outta Compton by NWA at one end, and shat out “Hangin’ Tough” by New Kids on the Block at the other. Well, this song sounds like it comes from that exact moment in time. It even has a sampled cartoon-black voice telling us to ‘check it out’ and to ‘put tha needle on tha rekkid when tha drum beats go like dis’. It’s awful, just awful. I don’t mean to be cruel, but it really is crass, and it stands out from the rest of the album because of it.
Done Done: To look on the bright side, this song is a massive improvement on the one before. To look at it another way, while there’s nothing really wrong with it, there also doesn’t seem to be any overwhelmingly strong reason for it to exist. The big gimmick of the track is that certain words (like ‘done’, for example) are grabbed out of the vocal performance, sampled, and then repeated in perfect sync with the backing track. It’s an interesting enough thing to do – though not exactly revolutionary – but isn’t really enough on its own to justify the existence of the song. There are other things that annoy me – the synthesised strings are mixed so treble-heavy, and played so high, that they’re little more than a vaguely tuned hiss – but really this song is just rather bland. Not offensively bland in a Phil Collins/ Chris de Burgh kind of way, but in an unremarkable, pleasant-enough-to-listen-to-but-easily-forgotten-afterwards kind of way. Or to put it rather more succinctly, it’s a filler song, and it does that job perfectly well.
Run Away From Trouble (listen to the song here): This, now, is probably my second-favourite, and without question the best produced, song on the album. The drum arrangements are fantastic, and have a real presence to them, in a way that provides a really nice grounding for the rest of the track. The vocal is well handled, and again the production is excellent, allowing the sound to shift from quiet in-your-ear intimacy to a genuinely grand, almost epic feel. Partly that’s achieved by using effects carefully and subtly, partly it’s achieved by clever use of harmonies, but a lot of it also comes down to the performance. This is the slowest-paced track, and it seems as though that extra space has given Frankmusik the opportunity to settle back and really let rip, and it’s greatly to his credit that he manages to do that without the result sounding overstated. The quickest shortcut, if you’re wanting to create something that sounds epic, is to ladle on OTT strings and massed choirs, and generally turn every fader you can find up to 11. That sound has its place, when it’s done well, but to create a genuine sense of grandeur from a few simple ingredients well used, as this song does, takes far more skill. It’s this sense of understated epic that makes this a very impressive end to a good album.
This isn’t, as it stands, a great album. There are times when the production and the arrangement are rather cheesy, not all the songs are of equal quality, and the treble-heavy mixing leaves it feeling slightly cheap and nasty in places. This is, though, a good album, and a genuine pleasure to listen to. In places – especially ‘Gotta Boyfriend?’, ‘Your Boy’, ‘Vacant Heart’ and ‘Run Away From Trouble’ – it achieves greatness, or something within hailing distance of it. That said, probably the single most interesting thing is not to much what this album itself is, but what it hints might still be to come. I’m already excited to hear the next Frankmusik album – to see if it manages to convert the promise that shows through so clearly here – and that in itself is a pretty good achievement.