Wednesday, April 30, 2014

album review: 'by nicole' by frankmusik

One of the very first video reviews I ever did was one that caught me by surprise in a good way. The album was Colette Carr's debut album Skitszo, and while I won't deny there were significant issues with that album, it did showcase a promising talent with a lot of personality, and 'No I.D.', a song from that album, landed on my year-end list of the Top 50 songs of 2013.

What's interesting is that that song didn't technically debut in 2013. In fact, the song was originally placed on the album of her main collaborator Frankmusik, a synthpop musician and producer who released that album Do It In The AM in 2011. Admittedly, this proves more than a little frustrating for me, but the song is still great and giving it a chance to get it and Colette Carr some additional recognition is all a good thing. Plus, given the fact that Skitszo was assembled from numerous assorted EPs and other songs, I'm inclined to give it a pass.

But what about Frankmusik, the male singer on the track? Well, after parting ways with his record label in 2011, he set off to make synthpop albums on his own label, first with Between in 2013 and now By Nicole this year. And I'll admit I was curious - I liked the slick glossiness of his production, he had a taste for solid melodic progressions, and he was a convincing presence behind the microphone. So I gave the new album By Nicole a few listens - how did it go?

Well, this is frustrating, because I wanted to like By Nicole by Frankmusik a lot more than I do, but there's a real big issue with this album that most will be able to ignore but I can't exactly look past. As it is, it's certainly a pop album with a ton of energy and scope in terms of its sound, but at the same time, such an aesthetic feels more than a misplaced and knocks this album a fair bit in my books.

First, Frankmusik himself, and I'll say he's a pretty solid pop singer. He has a ton of energy and raw passion that contributes to a considerable stage presence, and the fact that he can match his production's power and volume is impressive. At the same time, though, he's not exactly subtle in his vocal delivery, and though this album really doesn't require him to be on a musical level, it would have definitely added dimensions to his delivery. If I'm going to nitpick here, it's in his enunciation during his singing. It's not normally something I complain about, but considering how fast-paced his delivery can be and how his vocal production tends to have his words run together a bit, it can take a number of listens to really pick out what he's saying, which can be frustrating at points.

Granted, this might not have been as much of an issue if it wasn't for his production, which is large, dense, and highly energetic in its presentation. Most of the synths are heavier and fuzz-saturated, allowed to boom and echo throughout the mix while still mostly preserving a melody line, and with the inclusion of pounding drum machines, very crisp production and an excess of electronic squeals and sounds throughout the mix, I was reminded of a much heavier, euro-pop version of Owl City. And on that note, while I definitely appreciate the maximalist approach to bombast and energy on this album, it does feel very top-heavy and cluttered at the top of the mix, not letting the heavier sounds really develop some gravitas or swell. And I can't help but feel tighter restraint and focus might have produced something more effective, as the extraneous electronic pieces - especially the chipmunk voice snippets - could have easily been removed for a cleaner mix. And while I did like the varied instrumentation - the moments of acoustic guitar, piano, and horns were greatly appreciated - I definitely think a richer well of real instruments would have played better against Frankmusik's rougher, louder vocals.

Now some of you are probably wondering why I'm so reticent to really embrace this album. After all, I've gone on record saying I like bombast and power in music, and at the moment, Frankmusik's By Nicole might be one of the most explosive synthpop albums I've heard this year - so why doesn't it really click for me? Well, this comes to down to lyrics and themes - because for all intents and purposes, this is a breakup album. And to be fair, on the surface, it's not a bad one either, as Frankmusik is actually a pretty solid songwriter. His lyrics have a natural flow and cadence, they're frequently witty and show solid nuance, and while there are definitely moments that might benefit from more self-awareness like on 'Stabilizer' or 'Teacups', the songwriting is heartfelt and works for articulating some pretty complicated and awkward situations when relationships collapse, sometimes in the breakup, sometimes in the attempts to move on, sometimes in the doomed attempts at rekindling the relationship or staying friends, and sometimes in reconciling your own problems might have contributed to the breakup. And when the songs step up and show some of that nuance, like in 'Uh Oh', 'Misdemeanor', and 'Conclusions', they're easily the best songs on the album.

But here's the big problem: while the lyrics convey nuance and subtlety, the presentation definitely does not, both in Frankmusik's vocal delivery and the instrumentation. Simply put, if you crank every element up to eleven and go for such a bombastic sound, you're inevitably going to be playing with a broader approach, which does not support the lyrics and really renders a lot of their more insightful or vulnerable moments completely flat as Frankmusik plays up the anger and pettiness and melodrama of it all. And when you have songs like 'Crash & Burn' and my personal favourite in 'Call To Arms' that have a more simplistic lyrical style, it can work, but most of this album demands depth in the presentation that just isn't there. And considering we don't get many of those quiet, vulnerable moments where he shows grief or sadness or longing, the album can get abrasive and a little whiny at points. 'Teacups' is a song where Frankmusik describes a breakup where they split mutually because they blew up little things into big arguments, but does he not see how his song is taking the exact same approach? And while this album does go through a bit of an arc and ends on one of the more understated songs in 'These Streets', it still feels angry and bitter. On top of that, there's a running undercurrent of this album where Frankmusik feels resentful that he was there to help the girl in question through personal problems and that he feels used now that they're over, and while I get his frustration, that's life, and it paints him in a really sour light.

Look, I don't deny that on a certain, very visceral level this album works. If you just got dumped and you're looking for an album to express your complicated, curdled frustration, this album is effective in realizing that - but at the same time, with the presentation's focus in that direction to the neglect, it makes the album lose some dimension and nuance. Which is really a shame, because while I won't say the maximalist Europop production is my thing, it's done pretty well on this album with some solid melody lines and songwriting and a really potent performance, which is enough to knock it up to a 7/10 from me. I honestly wish I could say this album is great, but as it is, it is still worth your time, so give it a listen.

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