This new Frogg Café disc is getting a lot of love at PE and other music boards, so I was pretty keyed up to actually get a copy from PE expressly to write a review of it. Been spinning it a lot trying to see what all the fuss is about . . .
I can’t figure this out. I like music that’s syncopated and frequently changes time. Constant key changes in songs are incredibly important to me. I appreciate the use of vibes, brass and violin in a rock context. There’s no question that these guys can really play with nuance and subtlety. For all that, this album just doesn’t resonate with me. I mean, it’s OK, I suppose, but there’s 3 general things about it that make it hard for me to connect with.
1. Can these guys take any more cues from Kansas? I suppose it’s the violin carrying the melody so much and Robby Steinhardt vocal tone that are the strongest tell. There seems to be some chordal and key similarities as well. The horn arrangements are very Zappa-esque. Don’t get me wrong, I liked Kansas in their day and I’m STILL a big Zappa-phile today, I’d just like to hear a band with more of it’s own sound and vision.
2. There’s a thinness to the sound. The arrangements feel light to me, lacking *whomp*. I’ve read that there are massive amounts of tracks and recording finesse that went into these songs, but a lot of it seems to be lost in a muddle of midrange. Too many pointless parallels stepping all over each other.
There’s also an overcompressed quality to the recording. Too flat, like a lot of the instrument dynamics have been squeezed out. I also think the vocals are too dry, too up front. I’m not a fan of the singer’s throaty phrasing and excessive pronunciation of consonants in his sustains. “You’re so Cerrrrrrrrr-tain!”
3. The songs are too long and meandering. Being a prog-head, I don’t have an automatic aversion to songs running longer than 3:45 the way a lot of people do, but these songs are all over the map and hard to get to know. There isn’t a lot of structure to hang on to. Hey, go for 9 minutes, but have a reason to, not on every song. Most of these songs on this disc would have been fine at 4 minutes, but I find them wearing out their welcome at 6-10 minutes lost in soloing and repetition that doesn’t necessarily serve the songs.
The climactic track 7 is the real exception to some of these issues. The recording’s more open allowing instruments some breathing room. While I hear a lot of FZ cascading notes in the writing, there are elements in the arrangement like the Superfly wah guitar that are decidedly unique. I suppose it’s not supposed to be a fun song, but it has a real playful quality that I enjoy.
I bet this is a fun band to see live. The interplay of brass, woodwinds and vibes in a large rock band context would be a blast to watch develop on stage. The energy would be contagious and the audience would feed the band. But like the Dead, that energy is hard to get down in the studio. This recording seems to have sucked the life out of these songs.
(All Album Reviews by Sean)
Just a few thoughts on this new cd from Frogg Cafe. I reviewed their prior album and, without looking at it now, I seem to recall the group covering a lot of musical ground, offering up a cd of different sounding tracks. Some avant, some fusion, some symphy prog epics, etc. Seemed they were out to tap into each segment of the multi-faceted prog community's tastes. I thought that was kind of a cool idea, to show how versatile they are. I also remember suggesting though that next time they don't do that again, to refine their focus and settle on a sub genre or two to stay in.
This cd does that. They have stuck to what I think they do best which is a blend of what I would call fusionesque "chamber music". This cd seems to blend pop-like vocal sections amidst the above mentioned "chamber music". Like some tracks on the last album, this new disc recalls (occasionally) Jean Luc Ponty's music and more often, Frank Zappa's. The blend here sounds more like Frogg Cafe than those artists. That's a good thing.
Oh, there are a few vocal moments that try to get into the, dare I say, hooky neo-prog realm, like the tune "Reluctant Observer", which has a pretty memorable chorus. But I am not really sold on that sound from FC so much when it pops up in the middle of an otherwise rather knotty piece of music. Sort of a weird blend of sour meets sweet going on there.... You may walk away whistling the chorus but the rest may be hard to recall at first.
This cd is an improvement in some ways over the last. Nice to see the musical focus narrowed up some. While it was cool to try a cd as diverse as the last one, I think this one is better for staying in one spot more often than not.
If I could suggest anything for a future cd it would be to strive for more concise arranging and a more dynamic, punchier mix for the sound. There is some great playing here, but it all sounds a tad squashed. The mix could breathe a bit. Maybe having the vocal tunes stay in a more hook laden musical terrain too, that would be the other suggestion. They sort of sound like that treatment would suit them.
Overall a good effort and a step in the right direction. I am curious what where the FC sound will go next. Got a lot of talent here.....
(All Album Reviews by Epilepticgibbon)
Frogg Café is an excellent American progressive rock band operating out of New York. The band started out life in 1998 as a Frank Zappa tribute band called Lumpy Gravy but the name changed in 2000 and the band members started to write and perform their own music.
Fortunate Observer of Time is their third album but it's the first one I've heard. I'll say this much at this point, if they keep releasing stuff as good as this then I'll keep buying it!
The band consists of five core musicians: Bill Ayasse (electric and acoustic violin, backing vocals, mandolin, percussion), Steve Uh (electric and acoustic guitar, keyboards, violin), Nick Lieto (lead vocals, keyboards, piano, trumpet, flugelhorn), Andrew Sussman (electric bass, cello, vocals) and James Guarnieri (drums and percussion). They are also joined by assorted additional musicians, including ex-Frank Zappa percussionist Ed Mann on the epic “Abyss of Dissension”.
I know some people will probably wince every time I mention the name Frank Zappa - not everybody likes his stuff and not even Zappa fans like everything he did - but I can assure you that while FZ is clearly a huge influence on Frogg Café (most obviously on the aforementioned track “Abyss of Dissension”), there's much more to their sound than that.
So how do I describe the band's sound? How long do you have? Well there's the Zappa jazz and rock influences but the frequent and really beautiful violin sounds will at times make you think of Kansas, Mahavishnu Orchestra and maybe even David Cross-period King Crimson, plus there's also a definite cutting-edge American prog side to the band that makes them sound a bit like Echolyn in places, but then you have to remember the use of brass instruments, the occasional Carlos Santana-style guitar solos, the moments that sound like Gentle Giant, the nods to modern classical and avant-garde composers, and the interesting and often spiritual lyrics. Strewth! I hope I haven't missed anything out.
And while this mixture of influences and styles could quite easily just sound like a mess, it's all brought together in an innovative, powerful and inspiring way. This is adventurous music but it's not what I would call overly difficult to listen to… that's partly because the band clearly have an ear for melody and memorable hooks as well being able to write complex compositions with immense range and scope.
Nick Lieto, who composed all but one of the tracks on the album, is definitely someone to watch and admire. The opening track, “Eternal Optimist”, for example, starts out as a powerful piece of what could almost be called pop, but ends with an interesting instrumental section that could be vintage Kansas. It's followed by the title track, an instrumental that features some of the most wonderful and uplifting violin playing I've ever heard, and it flows seamlessly throughout much of the track, mixing wonderfully with the other instruments, plus we also get a nice break for a trumpet solo about half-way through. This may be the album's blissful highlight and we're only two tracks in! But don't switch off just yet because there's many more delights to come.
The next two tracks are both lengthy: “Reluctant Observer” is about nine and a half minutes long, “No Regrets” is just over eight minutes. I'm not even going to try to do either track justice but the former has an epic Zappa quality to it (“The Idiot Bastard Son” comes to mind), though it quickly expands beyond that, while the latter starts off in a downbeat and sombre way before moving into some amazing instrumental passages, including a glorious jazzy trumpet solo.
Just to completely wrong foot you, the next track is the shortest on the album, at little over a minute. Its shortness would perhaps have you thinking that it was throwaway filler material but “Resign” is in fact one of the loveliest tracks on the album, sounding like something by James Taylor, and it provides a suitable moment of peace in which to take stock before the album takes you on its next epic journey.
That next journey is “You're Still Sleeping”, the first track that I've not included in my 'Best Tracks' section at the end, not because it's not great but because I had to leave something out. It's over ten minutes long and contains some truly great passages but it's perhaps a couple of minutes too long.
And then we reach the longest track on the album, all 14 minutes and 38 seconds of “Abyss of Dissension”. It's the only track not written by Nick Lieto and instead comes from bassist Andrew Sussman. It's probably the most obvious homage to Zappa, to my ears at least (plus it's the track with Ed Mann on it), and it's an absolute classic. It's a dark prog/funk/jazz monster and rivals the title track as the best thing on the album, if not as one of the best tracks of the year. And if you're worried that it's too much Zappa for you then you might be pleasantly surprised by the tasty guitar solo from Steve Uh and the Gentle Giant-style multi-part vocal, both of which come near the end of the track.
The album ends on a purely classical note, the appropriately named “Release”. It's completely different from the rest of the album (an instrumental consisting of strings and flute) but it's a great, albeit slightly sombre, note to end on.
There's practically no faulting the performances or the compositions on this album, and the production is first class. What more do I need to say? If this sounds like it's even remotely your cup of tea then rush out and buy it immediately.
Best tracks: I could have easily picked everything on the album but I've decided on the following “Eternal Optimist”, “Fortunate Observer of Time”, “Relucant Observer”, “No Regrets”, “Resign”, “Abyss of Dissension”.