[3 October 2010]
PopMatters Music Editor
Frankie Rose has played in Vivian Girls, Dum Dum Girls, and Crystal Stilts, so it’s easy to get a mental picture of what the self-titled debut album by her band the Outs is like. While there are definitely a few hints of the girl-group-meets-riot-grrrl approach you’d expect based on her lineage, Rose has more of a soft spot for dream-pop experimentation than anything else—indeed, the tried-and-true primary sources for any up-and-coming noise-pop outfit are all over Frankie Rose and the Outs, from the warm fuzziness of Galaxie 500 and Black Tambourine to the twee idiosyncracies of Television Personalities to the Aislers Set’s infectious melancholy. But next to her contemporaries and forerunners, Frankie Rose can’t quite find her own voice as a songwriter, often getting caught in between different moods and modes, without a knockout pop punch to go to or a Midas touch for molding feedback into melodies to rely on.
Right from the get-go, there’s a feeling that not everything quite comes together on the album: While the opening tracks are among the strongest and most enticing on the record, their different styles and tempos are like puzzle pieces that don’t really snap and click. Certainly, lead-off number “Hollow Life” is a nice table-setting mood piece full of haunting organ chords, pretty vocals, and low-key embellishments like a sprinkling of sleigh bells, making for a promising prelude to something bigger and better to come. But it’s jarring the way the bare-bones punk pop of “Candy” comes on its heels, even if the second track is the closest thing to a single on the album, with its skewed, angular guitar play recalling Sleater-Kinney’s DIY-ish moments. So while both songs stand up well on their own, they feel unconnected and disjointed when placed side by side.
As frustrating as it is thrilling, “Little Brown Haired Girls” captures the album as a whole in a nutshell. At first, there’s something instantly appealing about the way Rose and the Outs match shoe-gaze-lite atmosphere with some crisp, pulsing rhythms on “Little Brown Haired Girls”, as insistent guitars explode only a little bit in, paced, then pushed, by galloping drumbeats. But the problem is that the Outs aren’t able to deliver a pop payoff on the track, since there’s no refrain or passage that releases the tension that has been building up. What starts out as something forceful and striking grows stale after a while, as the song keeps chugging along without reaching some kind of resolution, the sonic equivalent of being in perpetual motion without getting very far.
On the whole, Rose can’t fully harness her brimming imagination and channel it consistently into distinct songs over a complete album. In effect, the debut ends up being a collection of would-be two-minute noise-pop songs, many of which fade out before they get going. On the one hand, there are the overly subtle, wispy arrangements of “Lullabye for Roads and Miles” and the oceanic “Memo”, which lack the energy to generate much momentum, ebbing and flowing without ever hitting any high notes. On the other, the album’s compact punk ditties need some more pop to make ‘em pop, like some sweeter choruses or more dynamic hooks. A good case-in-point is “That’s What People Told Me”, which starts out intriguingly with choppy riffs wrapped in a blanket of fuzz, but ends up spinning its wheels with all-but-indecipherable vocals and instrumental elements that get redundant fast.
But as with any worthwhile work-in-progress, Frankie Rose and the Outs has enough moments of inspiration that’ll keep you interested in the band now and in the future. “Girlfriend Island” is the best example of what’s possible when everything comes together for the Outs, as Rose’s bubblegum vocals and hummable guitar lines build up a head of steam that propels the melody. While the track indulges in enough reverb-y, echo-y effects to give it a warm, retro feel, “Girlfriend Island” has a good sense of pacing and structure thanks to the rhythm section, so that its poppy elements are never dulled or overwhelmed by all the hazy feedback. And though it’s more understated and subtle, the closer “Save Me” hits critical mass just in time, as the atmospheric guitars play catch up to crisp, resounding beats, only to pass the rhythms by as the song grows in volume and drama. In the end, maybe it’s actually “Save Me” that best represents a debut effort full of fits and starts, emblematic of a band that hits its stride right before it’s too late. It’s just that you wished the group could have gotten to that point a little sooner and more often.