Sunday, May 13, 2012

Frankie Rose: Interstellar (2012)


You can be forgiven if you feel like you've just wandered into a concert by a Chromatics tribute band attempting to cover "Telstar" when the synth-overdriven Interstellar opens up on its title track's widescreen, spacey (but finally unjustified) thrust. Frankie Rose, formerly of Crystal Stilts and the Vivian Girls (making this an interesting comparison with Katy Goodman's project La Sera), has shed most of the surf influence heard on her previous work and scaled back some of the noise to concentrate on some of those dream-pop "soundscapes" the kids like these days. The result is largely as numbing as you might fear from that description, in large part because Rose seems infatuated with walls of vocals. That quirk is a less than desirable addition when your singing voice varies narrowly between aimlessly, introspectively pretty and calmly, robotically "lilting" without ever managing to seriously connect. But if you can brush off some of the dross all over this album, there's some enjoyable and promising stuff in it.

All those vocals serve to fill the space between the keenly separated sonics here, as though Rose is afraid of us really hearing her songs. She needn't be. None are bad, but the overexcited production often makes them such. Her melodic sense is strong, and the more proudly she wears her influences the better she is: the liquid bass-driven beauty of "Daylight Sky" strongly suggests New Order, while the pop bliss of "Night Swim" brings back her clean surf guitar licks to provide us with what may be the best song in the subgenre we've heard in some time. New wave is the fixation, it seems, skewing a little earlier than many of Rose's Human League-loving peers: "Had We Had It" will flash you back to the pregnant propulsion of all those forgotten bargain-bin power pop LPs circa 1982 you've picked up for $1. True to authenticity, the hook is pretty dumb and in less lean years it'd be b-side material at best.

Your fears about where Rose is going with all this are sadly confirmed by the sagging second half of Interstellar, more Bon Iver than Bangles (though I wouldn't mind hearing Susanna Hoffs' take on "Moon in My Mind" circa Everything). There's some kitsch value to it, but dealing with someone as obviously gifted as Rose, that's kind of a bummer. "Pair of Wings" is fun, for instance, if you imagine it's a recording of Lesley Gore after she's hit her baroque psychedelic period, but once that fantasy is smashed you feel like you're being put on -- within some sort of terrifying tower-of-sound soft rock experiment a la "Beth / Rest." That's just the first in a series of beatless, shapeless dirges: "Apples for the Sun" builds up to nothing, and "The Fall" sacrifices its nice celo and guitar into the abyss of total sludge.

But let's hear it for the pounding snare on "Gospel/Grace," dramatic and sweet, and above all (even the great "Night Swim") the true all-things-come-together touchstone of the album, "Know Me." It's a transportive jangle pop triumph as fast and sad and wily as you wish everything here was. On this one cut, no throwback necessary, Rose determines some operational formula for compressing her influences and ideas all in the perfect proportion. You hear it and it's instantly late Saturday night, in the best way.

The larger question Interstellar begs is, what has managed to make popular indie rock in 2012 such a damned sappy institution? Until recently, it seemed the growing acceptance of folk rock was a culprit, but now I'm not so sure. It's as if after Loveless mastered the obsession with oscillating sound, we've only gone further into the dead end of staring at ourselves with our eyes glazing over until everything amounts to an indiscriminate buzz. The injection of soft rock theatrics of yore hasn't helped, so someone with a keen sense of noise who could make a great scrappy rock & roll record like Frankie Rose ("Night Swim" proves it) chooses instead to travel down this strange path of artificial immersion, and it's a bit disheartening. Except when it isn't: "Know Me" shows how it can all come together in the right moment. Besides that, Rose's new material is all pleasant and evocative but there just doesn't seem to be a lot of substance to it.

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