Donavon Frankenreiter stars in this surf movie I have on DVD about a group of young American surfers driving down the coast of Australia, surfing the beaches they find, and generally behaving like surfers on holiday. He’s the group’s larrikin: farting in the van, chopping up the water with his board, with a tin of beer seemingly glued to his hand. My question after hearing this singer-surfer’s debut in 2004 was, “How did he get this mellow and romantic?” After hearing his sophomore effort, the question’s shifted to, “How did he get to sound this much like Ben Harper?”
Move by Yourself finds Frankenreiter in more of an upbeat mood than on his self-titled 2004 debut—and upbeat for this artist translates into an augmentation of Stevie Wonder funk and the slightest twang of country blues. Moving somewhat away from the acoustic material of his first disc (which was co-produced by Jack Johnson, and released on his Brushfire Recordings imprint), Frankenreiter opted for Jim DiVito’s vintage recording equipment, giving the music an earthy, organic feel.
To put Frankenreiter’s music in some perspective for you, he sounds like Ben Harper—a lot like Ben Harper. His voice is soft and smooth, with only a hint of smoke-induced gravel—like Ben Harper’s. His songs wind around spirituality and love with all the relaxed good vibes of a summer’s afternoon - like Ben Harper’s. And his music incorporates funk, a strong organic roots element, and slide guitars galore ... you guessed it, just like Ben Harper’s. All this firmly places Frankenreiter in a category of music we can call roots; in other words, the relaxed, not too deeply thought out music of the beach, just as the sun is setting after a day riding massive barrels.
If Frankenreiter’s music is all positive vibes, his lyrics show a disappointingly shallow understanding of things like love. On “All Around Us”, Frankenreiter drops the central wisdom that “One day we’ll all be taught / Love is all we got”; and it seems the primary reason he’s so amazed he found the girl on “Girl Like You” is that she’s “so sweet.” Occasionally, though, the singer gets it just right, expressing a feeling with a laid-back clarity that hits hard. On “The Way It Is”, he tells his child that smoke stacks are “making clouds for the sky.” and that lightning is “just fireworks”: nowhere better does the protectiveness and lament in the words capture the magic of innocence.
And so what that he’s just a simple guy singing his heart out? His romanticism may be somewhat shallow, but the sentiment is genuine. It is this that’s the real hold-over from his debut, because though the music is significantly more upbeat, the celebration of life is what this guy’s all about. Just one example: “These Arms” recalls “Call Me Papa”, less in the structure or content of the music, more in the overarching communication of the heady feeling of found love. “Let It Go” is another song that rises joyously to a big celebration, to the culmination: “Grab a friend let’s come together / Times like these should last forever.”
But in truth, most of the songs on Move by Yourself pass by in a cloud of easy influences, without leaving much of a stamp saying “This is Donavon Frankenreiter.” Even on the standout tracks—the funky “Move by Yourself” and familiar, laid-back lovesong “Everytime”—he sounds more like other artists than a unique figure. So this is a genre record, fine. With those expectations, you can easily enjoy Move By Yourself for its small-scale pleasures. It won’t change your world, but if you’re open to this music’s unashamed romanticism, it might just brighten your day.
// Notes from the Road
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