There's something awfully irritating about rock musicians complaining that today's musicians don't know how to rock as well as they do. Whether it's Henry Rollins or Robert Pollard ranting on stage about hip-hop and electronica or relative youngsters like Sloan or Ultimate Fakebook making "are you ready to rock"-type songs, it always makes me feel like they're out of stop, like they're getting too cranky to really rock. If you can rock, why talk about it? Just do it.
That point of alienation with today's music is where the Bevis Frond's new album What Did for the Dinosaurs starts. While Frond lead singer/songwriter Nick Saloman has thrown biting comments about today's music into his last few albums here and there, they've mostly been quick snaps in the context of a song. Here the title track, the album's opener, turns partway through into a bluesy, harried rant. "This stuff is rubbish, I can't stand it and that's that," he sings, "I don't care if I come off like a dinosaur." With him, though, there's a certain amount of self-criticism that accompanies the rage, giving it more depth. He never wanted to turn into his dad, complaining about this new-fangled music, he explains. Yet he did nonetheless: "All I can say is that I suddenly looked in the mirror and found that I'd turned into him," he sneers.
The main thing that keeps Saloman's attitude from dragging his music down is that he doesn't let it get in the way of doing what he does best: making 1960s-influenced rock sound fresh, through brilliant melodies and raging guitar, not to mention lyrical wit . . . and heart. Saloman reserves his rants for the album's bookends -- the title track and the closing "Dustbins in the Rain (What Did for the Dinosaurs Part Two)" and spends the bulk of the album playing with as much ferocity as ever, as if to prove he can still blow all these young cats out of the water. And prove that he does, by putting pop hooks over absolutely searing guitar licks.
The Frond's last album, Valedictory Songs, cemented a new lineup after years of the group being mostly Saloman by himself. That lineup -- a trio with Adrian Shaw on bass and Andy Ward -- help give Saloman's songs extra strength. If Valedictory Songs' new, more cohesive sound eventually made the songs sound a little too similar, here that flaw has been fixed; the way the three musicians play so solidly together pumps more life and energy into the already superb songs. You can tell right from the second song, the compressed rocker "The Wrong Side", and the third, a bluesy, more mid-tempo song with allusions to James Bond theme music called "Return of the Stylites", that this group knows what they're doing. That confidence shows throughout this utterly packed album, 18 songs in almost 78 minutes. Even the slower ballads have real presence and power which heightens the emotions, like on "Our Number", an examination of a relationship that might or might not work, where Saloman sings especially delicately and allows the music's ups and downs to help accentuate the feelings. Or on the heart-stirring ballad "Lost Soul's Day", where gentle guitar strumming propels the regret-filled mood.
As with any Bevis Frond album, there's some real gems here, both catchy pop-rock tunes like "Silver Dart" and "Candles" and heavier-edged rock jams like the stunning "Good Enough for You". In general the songs are more compressed than usual; there's no 15-minute psychedelic blowouts. still, despite the traditionalist attitude of the title, there's a willingness here to mix things up a bit, like on "Yo-De-Lo", a raucous singalong with oddly processed backing vocals, or on the title track's middle section, a sprightly psych-pop run-through with horns, synth and "ba ba ba" female backing vocals.
Lyrically, whether writing about love, class differences or power relationships, Saloman has a tendency to cut through the b.s. of life and get right to the heart of things. It's a style of writing that matches the music well. Yet it's clear throughout the album that thinking critically about the world doesn't necessarily lead to happiness. In fact, there's a lot of sadness involved with looking at life clearly. "The more you understand, the harder you will land when you come down to earth," he sings on one song ("Down to Earth.")
Ultimately his feelings about the music world are revealed as less reactionary bitterness than the genuine sadness that accompanies the recognition that the music business is more about business than music, that it isnt art-focused at all, that it's all about quick sales and pretty faces, that all most people see is surfaces. The lengthy final song, "Dustbins in the Rain", is a melancholy cousin of the title track in which Saloman ponders is place in music: who cares and why, how is music is considered by the "industry" and whether people really mean what they say. He projects doubt about the whole notion of being a rock star. "Be like me, don't let them see you cry," he sings, but cry he does, tears of an honest-to-goodness rock and roll artist unsure about where he stands. He sings, "It's such a lonely place to be / I wonder if they laugh at me when I do my fabulous impression of collapse." It's a heartwrenching ending to an album that explodes with enthusiasm about music while pondering the importance of that music in the world today.