Thursday, March 19th, 2009 at 8:00 PM
4 years ago
It's been said that to write a decent pop song, all you need is three chords and the truth. But as pop music's brief history has shown, things aren't always that simple. Sometimes you need to smudge the truth a little to get your point across; sometimes you need more than three chords. And sometimes you need a glockenspiel, a Suzuki Omnichord, and a Tennessee high school marching band.
Frances know this all too well. The coed sextet's debut full-length All the While carries on the great tradition of pop music that plays with itself, taking the fun parts and discarding the dumb ones, flirting with chaos but always returning to a gloriously catchy, melodic center. It's resolutely childlike, fanciful stuff (toy instruments abound, as do sing-sung lyrics about stagecoaches and telephones made of paper cups and string); but then, Frances are correspondingly serious in their execution, employing whiplash-inducing chord changes, bizarre stylistic touchstones (Van Dyke Parks' pop oddities, classic AM-radio rock, a little Stravinsky, a little Sondheim), and darker moments that hint at something terrifying lurking behind the swooning strings and oom-pah horns.
Frances began as a collection of relatively stark breakup songs written by bandleader Paul Hogan while he worked toward his doctorate of music in New York City. Hogan's background is in 20th-century classical music; he's organized experimental works involving 23 children playing 23 pianos and recorded a surprising quantity of frog sounds. In order to match the music's ambitions, Frances soon expanded into a living, breathing collective, in which all members contribute to the writing and arranging process. After the group self-released Night Light EP to a few quiet internet hosannas, their live shows exploded, regularly incorporating chamber orchestras, brass, woodwinds, and choirs along with the usual litany of (literal) bells and whistles. Frances' performances take place out of time, as the band members' varied musical backgrounds congeal into a sort of indie-rock parlor show.
Vaulting through the window on a wave of woodwinds, All the While's lead-off title track is a triumphant statement-of-purpose drenched in the band's trademark orchestral bombast. From there, the record slides into "The Brain," a jaunty piano-led number in which the airy-voiced Hogan wears his Glasgow-pop influence with pride. All the While producer Chris Zane's pedigree is in sly, art-damaged indie rock (Walkmen, Les Savy Fav, Asobi Seksu, Harlem Shakes), and his touch gleams in the record's shadowy corners. "Tightrope" swings from lightly percolating indie pop to Krautrock chug in a heartbeat; the slow-burning "Cousin," meanwhile, opens with a menacing pulse, goose-steps through a field of tubas, and then blossoms into a delirious jazz waltz, trilling Broadway flutes and all. You can almost see the cast of thousands bounding into the streets for the dance breakdown.
All the While, Frances' debut full-length on Gigantic Music, is a perfectly realized expression of the band's genteel madness. It's experimental pop, dressed up in a top hat and tails.
Frances is Stephanie Skaff (vocals, sundries), Brian Betancourt (guitar, sundries), Nick Anderson (bass), Julia Tepper (vocals, violin, sundries), Tlacael Esparza (drums), and Paul Hogan (vocals, keyboards).