[20 August 2008]
Somewhere, far away from the shuffle and hurry of our modern existence, there’s a place where life is about taking it easy. Beers are cold, breezes are cool, the waves are always perfect, and shoes are most definitely optional. In recent decades, the soundtrack for that place was supplied by good-times rockers like Jimmy Buffett. Of late, the (tiki) torch has been handed off to a new generation of perpetually laid-back songsmiths, guys like Jack Johnson, G. Love, and Donavon Frankenreiter.
For Frankenreiter, the Johnson comparisons are (and might always be) inescapable (though Frankenreiter seems too good-natured a fellow to mind). The two men are good friends, surfing buddies, and Frankenreiter’s debut record was even delivered via Johnson’s Brushfire Records. Beyond their closeness, there is a definite degree of relationship between the pair’s music. Both songwriters employ an “everything’s going to be alright, life is for the living” mentality made manifest through an effervescent, jam-driven (but not too jam-driven because that would be more work than is necessary in the land of good times) style centered around the buoyant riffs an acoustic guitar can produce.
Although Frankenreiter’s sound occasionally approximates Johnson’s acoustic surfer-cool (especially in his vocal delivery), he most clearly distinguishes himself from his pal by the quality of sounds that support him. While Johnson’s work is all too often monochromatic, Frankenreiter fleshes out the playful, rhythmic foundation on which his style is built, supplementing his acoustic center with vibrant bass lines, soft and soulful keys, and the intermittent horn part. When the material on Pass It Around really works, Frankenreiter evokes the cool, light-rock sounds of ‘70s AM radio more than he upholds a standard of island-living folk jams.
For the uninitiated, the prospects for Frankenreiter’s third full-length might seem a little suspect from the start; opening track “Life, Love & Laughter”, while a pretty good thesis statement for Frankenreiter and his life’s philosophy, is over-the-top in its cheer and fails to really ring true. Yet, Frankenreiter quells any fears of an overly exaggerated, totally sunburned record with the smooth, soulful sounds of track two, “Too Much Water”. With that cut, Frankenreiter sets the musical tone for the album’s middle, by far its strongest stretch of songs.
That excellent interior part of the album is what gives Pass It Around its identity and furthers the hope that Frankenreiter can establish himself as a truly relevant songwriter.The album’s brightest moments are found here including what is, by a distance of light years, the record’s best cut: “Your Heart”.
Starting with a brief, exciting blend of exotic strings and bordertown mariachi horns, the song quickly establishes its groove. While still retaining an incredibly catchy, radio-ready hook, “Your Heart” is the least conventionally pop song on the record. The chorus is driven by staccato riffs traded back-and-forth between muted horns and mallet percussion while the verses find their flavor in a quirky duet between strings and keys. The song proves what good can come when Frankenreiter doesn’t try to do too much and just lets the music speak for itself.
“Someone’s Something”, which sounds as if it was taken straight off a ‘70s hits compilation and “Come With Me”, with its sweet guitar interludes, both contribute significantly to making this stretch of album so worthwhile.
The wheels begin to come off a little with track eight, “Sing a Song”. Starting with some assembly line, conga-line percussion, the track is step backwards, devolving into the acoustic, jammy formula Frankenreiter had worked so hard to break away from. While “Take your time / Don’t live so fast / You gotta sing a song / If you want to make it last / “So sing a song for your mother, a song for your brother and a song for your friends, too” is a nice sentiment, it’s also a totally predictable one, sure to induce more than a few rolls of the eyes.
While the slide guitar which starts the next cut, the album’s title track, provides some welcome tones, the song continues the downhill slide into expected and, ultimately, mediocre territory. Frankenreiter instructs listeners to “do what’s right for you and I’ll do what’s right for me”. Passing “it” around might work around the campfire but the song lacks any sort of inspiration or application.
Despite the shaky moments that begin and end Pass It Around, Frankenreiter takes some nice steps toward a marriage of his underlying worldview and a bit more interesting musical expression. Lyrical content is the next logical place to flesh things out and add some depth. Pass It Around is far from perfect but it’s an album whose shelf life won’t expire at the end of the summer and for Frankenreiter, that’s progress.