Wednesday, October 14, 2015

album review: 'for you' by frankmusik

Oh, I've been looking forward to this one.

See, I think it was more coincidence than anything that I decided to pick up Frankmusik's 2014 album By Nicole, figuring there was bound to be quality given his work with Colette Carr. What I didn't expect was tightly written, explosive synthpop backed by the impressively raw vocals of Vincent Frank, where as pop music was getting more polished and reserved he was doubling down on intense passion... which could get a little awkward considering it was, for all intents and purposes, a breakup album. Because believe me, when By Nicole worked we got killer songs like 'Misdemeanor' and 'Uh Oh' and 'These Streets' and 'Call To Arms' and 'Conclusions', the last two being some my favourite songs of 2014... but as a whole, it felt a little too overwrought for the material it was trying to tackle and could have afforded a little more subtlety to undercut the bitterness.

But that said, even despite its flaws By Nicole hit enough high points that when I heard Frankmusik's new album For You was grounded in more contentment, pitching the bitterness and grief to the winds, I was definitely interested. After all, 'Call To Arms' was probably the simplest song on By Nicole in terms of being a raw, straightforward pump-up track, but it was also the best - if he could throw together a pop album of tracks like that, he could have a smash hit on his hands. So I had high hopes for this album, and pretty high expectations too - did For You deliver?

This is a tricky album to review. Because it's very clear across the board that Frankmusik configured For You as a spacious, impeccably modern electronic synthpop record, filled to the brim with straightforward, heartfelt love songs, and at its best, it's got an exhilarating quality that perfectly fits that high energy dance where you could slot in nearly every song off of this album. The production is better, the energy is brighter, the lyrics don't succumb to the bitterness that hurt By Nicole, by all accounts this album is a more cohesive work... and yet I'm not sure it's better than that last album, or if it is, only by the slightest fraction. And look, part of it might be a factor of this year being overloaded with fantastic synthpop - he's facing much stiffer competition this year, and while this record definitely holds its own, CHVRCHES, The Wombats, and Lower Dens are an impressive trio to beat. 

But then again, I'm not even sure that's the right competition, because where By Nicole took its maximalist leanings to intensify Frank's emotional turmoil, For You aims towards the dance floor or maybe the festival circuit, with the sweeping tones and instrumental breakdowns that epitomize that format. And that's impressive, given that Frankmusik wrote and produced the entire thing himself without the benefit of major label production money that he can make the album sound this big and still have some depth to it. I'm not going to say all the horns and strings sound as crisply organic as the real thing, and like most Frankmusik albums it can feel a little overmixed and cluttered for its own damn good - why he adds in those warbling vocal flutters on 'I Remember' or 'Majestic' is beyond me, unless they contribute to the melody like the careening sparks of 'Love Again', they really just overload things - but this guy has always had a knack for taking solid melodic progressions and blowing them up to titanic size against windswept, airy production. 'Love Again' is the first example on this album that really clicks, as it takes a progression you'd otherwise hear on a Dillon Francis album and not only makes it more complex, but blows the energy and tempo into the stratosphere. So much of this is anchored in balancing that melodic groove, and when this record really hits its stride on the back half on songs like the subtle 'Show', the great chorus of 'Never Left', the pianos supporting 'Say Goodbye' and especially that change in intensity midway through 'Know My Name'. Now there are moments that fall into a similar vein as CHVRCHES - especially the 80s-inspired 'Turnin' - but Frankmusik is aiming for greater bombast than that, like the opulence of 'Lexus' or the strings behind 'Show' and 'Never Left' or even the hints of horns that creep through, especially on 'Mistress'. And then there's the album closer 'This', which ranks as one of his best tracks simply because of the focused power of the sandy mix crystallising for massive impact.

That said, it's not all great. Both the album opener 'Wake Up' and the chorus of 'Lexus' force the dissonance a little too hard for their own good on their synths, and it can make otherwise decent songs feel more askew and clumsy than they should be. And make no mistake, when this album can't build its melodic groove, the lumbering heavy beats are plenty content to hammer it into you... which could work if this record was gunning for more aggressive emotions and does work well on 'This', but it can feel a bit out-of-place at points, most notably on 'Mistress'. And as I said, the overmixed nature of the production can work against Frankmusik, especially on the slower, more restrained 'sex' tracks like 'Ground' and 'Somewhere' where it undercuts some otherwise pretty damn great atmosphere, with some of the more tasteful usages of reverb I've heard in a while. And of course pitch-shifted vocals find their way onto this album, especially on 'Sometimes', and I'm left thinking that some of these melodies might hit with so more impact if they were just left well enough alone.

Now this takes us to Frankmusik's delivery - and let me stress this guy is a powerhouse, and he knows his own range impressively well. More importantly, he knows how to produce for his voice and his layering often and multi-tracking can prove pretty effective, especially when he brings in his upper register and a really solid falsetto. I guess if I were to nitpick here, I miss some of the throatier, lower vocals he brought on By Nicole's most powerful tracks, if only because he's such a force of personality in that range, but overall, when he sounds better than ever across the rest of his register, I'm not exactly complaining.

And this takes us to the area where I have the least to say - lyrics and themes. Quite simply, if By Nicole was the bitter breakup, this is Frankmusik learning to trust and love again before returning to the spotlight and a pop scene that might have left him behind but where he's going to find his way regardless. As such, with few exceptions most of this record are fairly straightforward love songs with differences in tone, but I do appreciate the progression from liking the glamour and idea of the relationship to something deeper as he learns to give of himself. Of course, for all of those great love songs that go to the stars and back, the album has to start on the sour attitudes left behind from By Nicole, which is one of the reasons 'Wake Up' is such a bitter note to open up the album. Yes, I get its place to begin the progression, but I'd argue the album could have started on a note that didn't feel so actively abrasive, even if that was the point. The other criticism I could make here is that the lyrical arc is a little light on drama compared to the complicated emotional turmoil of By Nicole, but I actually appreciated the simplicity and subtlety of the arc here, and you can really the emotional relief that he feels as the album approaches its absolutely excellent final third.

So yeah, for the most part I really liked this album even if I'm a shade shy from really loving it. I still think that Frankmusik could afford to give his tracks a bit more room to breathe - and I'd love to hear what he could do if he was able to push for more live instrumentation - but with what he's got, For You might start shaky but builds into a selection of damn great synthpop tracks that ride on great grooves, huge choruses, and moods that are downright infectious. For me, it's an exceptionally strong 7/10 and a very high recommendation - and while I'm not quite certain it hits the killer moments of drama on By Nicole, For You gives us Frankmusik fresh, revitalized, and very much back on track - and I can't wait to hear more.

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