Oh, if only all R&B records were made this way. Imagine the Bee Gees making an art album at the peak of their Saturday Night Fever-era, with a dash of Steve Miller's "Fly Like an Eagle" and a pinch of Al Green's horns and strings tossed in. Yes, it's lazy to draw such broad and obvious comparisons, but placing that bug in the reader's ear is simply irresistible. Rest assured that Frank Lenz's The Hot Stuff boils over into related sub-genres with equally cool competence. Songs like "Freak Train" and "Line Dancer" are timeless; they make one wonder how big a star Lenz might have been 25 years ago, and if the next generation will wonder why we didn't embrace his music en masse. This is a startling first solo effort from the heretofore journeyman drummer and, to quote fellow PopMatters critic Jason Thompson, "this is one that's going to get played in my stereo a million zillion times" (Those Peabodys).
For several years Frank Lenz served as the explosive time-keeper for alt-rock bands The Lassie Foundation and Fold Zandura, whose Ultraforever was recently reviewed for PopMatters. On the Northern Records web site Lenz offers his Top 5 list of jazz drummers. The natural expectation was for The Hot Stuff to be a percussion demonstration with bits of instrumentation and melody serving as props for Lenz's flamboyant approach. Instead, some of the beats are sampled or synthesized. Apart from "Soul Sound Revival", the rhythms are surprisingly straight-forward. Lenz is preoccupied with carving deep grooves with layered electric piano, organ, and occasional distorted guitars. His vocals are thin, nondescript, geeky attempts at blue-eyed soul, while guest singer Bridget Bride contributes some prima diva voice on "Electric Light Battleship" and "Take the Wheel". There are a few gratuitous freak-out flourishes here and there. On their own the individual components of The Hot Stuff aren't that noteworthy. But there is an art to collecting, reshuffling, and integrating seemingly familiar sounds into a flowing edifice. Unlike Beck, Lenz doesn't construct a self-indulgent black-hole that demands anything of the listener. And this isn't a mere pastiche, either. This music is like weather or fragrances -- there for your enjoyment at any level of intensity you choose. Lenz has patiently studied the pattern, and he creates here a musical lava lamp that makes as perfect a soundtrack for reviewing chemistry notes as it does for cruising.
I recently dropped off my oldest daughter at her dorm at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, then drove about slowly, digging the Franklin Street scene with The Hot Stuff blaring from the speakers. That was a bit risky -- Chapel Hill is the capitol of The Connells, Archers of Loaf, and Ben Folds, to name a few. While stalled in traffic, the drone of "Queen Bee of the Indiots" wafted out the sun-roof and enveloped some students crossing the street behind me. The song has a metronomic linearity laced with bad-acid-trip effects that subconsciously draws hipsters like moths to a light-bulb. One bearded young fellow leaned forward to ask what I was listening to. His lady friend gave me a thumbs up -- whether an acknowledgement of the music or a polite affirmation to a far-out old dude, I'm not sure. Perfectly ironic, however, was the repeated mantra of the lyrics: "Queen bee of the indiots / are you still cool after high school? / are you still cool after grad school?" I had to laugh out loud.
This "Queen Bee" motiff is the subject of an arcane essay that accompanies the album. A writer dubbed "Cupie Lazano" extolls the virtues of one Francis Albert Lenz, crediting him with the "rebirth of cool" and "beginning pangs of a Revolution, a musical Revolution." Lazano explains, "The twist of irony, which only added to the confusion of the Revolution, was the symbiotic relationship between Francis Albert Lenz and the Queen Bee of the Idiots, for they were not that different . . . They were not the mythical figures of the Revolution like James Taylor [speaking of Chapel Hill] or Billy Cobham, nor were they cool like Elliot Smith or the Flaming Lips. Nonetheless they were the significant figures as to why the Revolution had begun." I used to sit and write junk like that in high school. It's an obvious foil; there's nothing to it apart from demonstrating the absurdity of trying to "figure out" this music. Frank Lenz is not trying to be the next Dave Brubeck or Jack Kerouac. His "philosophy", loosely speaking, is summed up on the album's finale, "Everlasting":
"Where do we go from here
how do we find anything?
and nothing seems to mean a thing at all
only what the mind believe and we believe
anything at all
to our everlasting"
The beauty of The Hot Stuff is there's not a trace of pretense. It is a purely unself-conscious exploration of textures and colors in a pop format. The only "Revolution" that occured was simply this: Frank Lenz, the ordinary guy, got out from behind his drum-kit and began pursuing his own interests with unbridled fascination. This record opens that possibility to the listener, which might mean stepping away from that computer keyboard or stuffing that brief case in the trash can. Or quitting that job at the paint store.