Peter Frampton in 2010 remains interesting for his earnest attention to his craft — obvious on the new Thank You Mr. Churchill — and with respect to his past, which has been at turns inspiring and frustrating.
Frampton’s mercurial beginnings are well-known, first as a member of Humble Pie, with whom he didn’t stay long. He was an instant sensation because of his seraphic visage and his surprisingly smoky vocal presence (defining moment: his background vocals on “I Don’t Need No Doctor”). From Humble Pie, Frampton moved into a solo career, settling into the position of cult favorite: his relatively few fans were fanatically loyal to him, and he was something of a critics’ darling, viewed as a catchy original songwriter, an ingratiating if limited singer, and an underrated guitarist who just couldn’t catch a break commercially.
Frampton Comes Alive was a bit of a shock, then, because no one expected such a massive blockbuster from this innocuous, fringe artist, but there it was. In the wake of that album, there was incredible heat on him to follow up with something of equal merit, and by all accounts he buckled under the pressure, as I’m in You was a wimp-out of major proportions. Following this record (which sold respectably, but which was generally not well-received), Pete’s popularity plummeted. He was involved in the Sgt. Pepper film fiasco along with the BeeGees, who likewise saw their careers slide following the release of that particular bomb.
Frampton had one further notable release, 1979’s Where I Should Be, which contained the surprisingly catchy single, “I Can’t Stand It No More”. There was an auto accident along in there somewhere, in which he nearly died, an apt metaphor for his career, unfortunately. The problem for poor old Peter (and he’s said as much) is that there was that Scavullo portrait on the cover of Rolling Stone that emphasized his Leif Garrett-like cuteness, and he certainly exploited it subsequently (see the cover of I’m in You — ugh!), despite his purported distaste for it.
But the thing that always set Frampton apart from all the glam-rockers and assorted pop lightweights was that, at heart, he was a guitar slinger, even though much of his recorded output of the ’70s didn’t adequately show that facet of his music. His studio work tended to be pretty restrained and even sometimes desultory, but live he could really let it rip, and he evidently loved doing so, which is why his live album broke down so many doors.
His playing is at once melodic and well-structured — he’s classically trained, but also wild and spontaneous, and he never has that predictable, stale quality associated with many of the more glum virtuosos who solo, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, as if it were a painful obligation. The Framp can keep up with any of the typewriter guitarists, but, unlike most of them, he’s capable of lyric, even vocal, expressiveness in his soloing, which is why the Heil talk box was such a good fit with his playing, since it made his often vocal-like guitar phrasings manifestly so.
As a vocalist, Frampton was never first-class. His voice lacks the range and depth of the great singers, but it’s a pleasant instrument all the same, warm and amiable. He does the best he can with it, wringing a lot of expressiveness and variety of tone out of what seem to be limited pipes. His persona onstage, likewise, was always good-natured and unassuming, yet puckish and charming, as he was capable of projecting a sense of intimate engagement with his audience.
Frampton’s songwriting has also been one of his strengths. He’s capable of writing poignant ballads, catchy pop, and light rockers, the variety of his output making him (at one time) radio-friendly. The songwriting on the new record, however, fails him. Most of Thank You Mr. Churchill is fairly tedious, and repeated listenings don’t bring it much to life. The title cut, for instance, finds Frampton in a ruminative mood and in a voice that sounds distinctly lived-in, calling to mind Paul McCartney’s comparably quirky “Mr. Bellamy”. The song shifts gears quickly, as the chorus moves to clear, power-pop chordage, an indicator of things to come, and his soloing sounds exuberant here, as everywhere.
What’s noticeable on first listen to the new album is that it’s absent any real ballads, except the final song, “Black Ice”, which is more of a dirge than a ballad. It’s intended to be touching, but to ears benumbed by the record’s first ten songs, it will likely be simply boring. Everything else on the record is quite heavy. Pete likes it loud, and his guitar tone is big and wide from coast to coast; he’s rarely played with such frenzied passion on the one hand, yet technical precision on the other.
“Road to the Sun” is interesting in that it hearkens back to his early ’70s anthem “I Wanna Go to the Sun”, plus it features his kid on vocals, and “I’m Due a You” borrows a bit of “Smooth”-style Santana, but both songs are pretty pedestrian. “Asleep at the Wheel” is another trudger for the most part, though enlivened by Pete’s edgy soloing, getting into some serious outside weirdness, and verging into Jeff Beck territory on the outro.
“Suite Liberte” is an instrumental of utterly tasteful playing despite the fact that it ends up overly long and self-indulgent, feeling like an interminable jam session, with Frampton doing his best Eric Clapton. Later, “Restraint” (ha!) finds Pete in Lenny Kravitz mode; it sounds as if he’s playing slide guitar, too, which is a bit of a departure for him, so props to the guy for going beyond his customary sound — and no talk box on the whole album. “I Want It Back”, as with many of the other songs here, is a bit of a slog. In his pursuit of heaviosity, Frampton has sacrificed his former charming lightness of touch. “Invisible Man” kicks off with a “White Lightning and Wine” shimmy, but the ungroovy drumming robs the song of what could have been some actual white, middle-aged English guy funk.
Overall, Thank You Mr. Churchill contains substantial songs, and Frampton’s playing has never been better. Moreover, the energy and passion he put into the record is impressive — his list of thank yous is a mile long, and he’s peddling the album’s ringtones in the liner notes. Sure enough, Frampton’s biggest devotees are no doubt elated to have him back in exuberant form, but, for the rest of us, the dearth of memorable songs here only prompts us to think back on Frampton’s better days.