This Philadelphia group has gotten a lot of press from an idiotic CD. Let me explain. The group has been making waves in the Americana/alt.country/whatever you call it now charts with its last album entitled Idiots, a surprising disc that made Philly music writers go ga-ga. Only possibly Marah has made a bigger impression with its music in the city of Brotherly Love. Regardless, though, the fourth album from Frogholler kicks off with a dirge sound which fans of Dolorean or Bee and Flower could seek a great amount of solace in. A keyboard is on the horizon as the tired vocals give way to a piano-based barroom tune. This track, “Unlock the Door”, is a great introduction to this band, who prefer to give their music the title “Pennsylvania Dutch Rock”. Singer and guitarist Darren Schlappich is helped out on harmonies here also, recalling the Jayhawks at their best. And what makes it all the better is the fact they aren’t in any hurry to do anything.
“Virginia” is more of an upbeat tune that could be created in any kitchen party. Talking about what is and isn’t far, the violin and bass are added in slowly but to a great result. The same could be said for the banjo and acoustic guitar that comes in. You get the impression that the band has been doing this for years, yet we’re just fortunate enough now to sneak a peek. Ted Fenstermacher’s violin works well off the banjo during the bridge. Fans of the Cash Brothers and, to a lesser extent, Wilco, would do well to seek this gem out judging by the first two songs. “The Sweetest Sound” is another gem that is more rock than country, resembling Slobberbone in some respects. Not knowing if the band is heading down a hillbilly sound or a harder rock, the tune just ambles along and adorably keeps you guessing.
A bit of Southern soul is thrown in for good measure on “Idiots”, which has a lot in common with the Black Crowes’ “Good Friday” off Three Snakes and One Charm. Toe-tapping and instantly having that swaying quality, the song just takes off and keeps soaring. “So you’re right, this is where it all begins”, Schlappich sings behind a well-rounded arrangement with that lovable little audible road bump in each riff. What is distinctly different from the other songs is the percussive, train-rolling sound of “What Went Down”. Coming off a bit like contemporary Bob Dylan, the bouncy tone keeps it moving along nicely. “You’re going to hell and I’m heading for the sky”, he sings.
Possibly the closest Frogholler come to describing themselves is the sparse and haunting “Suit & Tie”, which talks about those who think they are better than others, be they suits or just those behind the scenes at labels and radio. “Glory” reverts back to the road-weary Americana sound so few can capture so well. “Well you can’t tell a story with half of the facts”, Schlappich says while a pedal steel guitar moves back and forth over the tune. It’s the sort of song where you know where it’s heading but you still enjoy the ride getting you there. This is a tune that would definitely shine on any given night in any given watering hole.
The record tames down somewhat with a melancholic run-through of “Mine”, with Schlappich giving the track more of a solitary ballad tune. But it still contains a slight hook that draws each listener in with, er, each listen. “God’s Children” is another dirty Southern dirge that has more sway than any song legally should. It should be a tune that Blue Rodeo should hit pay dirt with in Canada. The guitar that wraps up the song is also punishing at times, but never goes overboard before fading out. “Second Hand Smoke” throws the only curveball, with an organ giving the song a ‘70s radio-pop feeling despite the banjo in the distance. The album, overall, is probably one of the best to come out in 2003 and would do well alongside other stellar alt.country bands on the rise. A must!
// Notes from the Road
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