SXSW 2013: Frank Smith, & the Pitfalls of Nineties Nostalgia

When Frank Smith’s Aaron Sinclair moved to Austin from Boston a few years ago, Frank Smith ultimately released last year’s fantastic Before You Were Born. It felt like Sinclair had found himself some Texas twang upon his arrival, and integrated it seamlessly into his rock vibe. This wasn’t country-rock; it was clearly still retro alt-rock with just an accent of country on the top of it all. You could see a country band covering the songs and making them straight country, or a rock band covering them and going balls-to-the-wall with it, but Frank Smith managed to play both sides of the fence. I went out and bought it on vinyl (not something I do a lot of), and still spin it with regularity.

On April 2nd, Frank Smith will release their next record, Nineties, and Sinclair and company seem to have become that rock band covering their material. There’s no twang and little hint of country (we’ll get to where it shows up), and it’s entirely intentional. The name of the album alone indicates that we’re receiving a record that looks backwards. It’s not a straight up tribute album to alternative guitar rock, but it tries to indicate that we should view it within the paradigm of Nineties rock. I see two problems with this.

The first is that Nineties retro-ism isn’t cool right now, though pockets of it are getting hip again. The late-80’s, early-90’s New Jack Swing material is being revisited by artists like Solange and Jamie Lidell. Shoegaze is totally in with My Bloody Valentine’s first new record in forever, and you see local artists like Ringo Deathstarr fitting into the milieu nicely. Most guitar rock bands, though, are either getting atmospheric and noodly like Real Estate (see the new Good Field album) or are interested in a sort of nouveau 60’s revivalism (a la Foxygen and Tame Impala). You can argue that it’s good not to sound like everyone else, and I’d agree with you, but then you’d want to be not-sounding-like-everyone-else while crafting a new sound rather than not-sounding-like-everyone-else while copping an old sound.

Frank Smith - 'Beaten Sacks of Death'

The second problem is that I don’t really think this new album from Frank Smith sounds like the Nineties. I’ve heard people mention Sonic Youth – which could not be further from the truth – and Pavement – certainly a much closer referent – as inspirations for this new record, but I honestly don’t hear either. They’re still more Band of Horses than Sebadoh, no matter what some reviewers say. Listen to “Beaten Sacks of Death” above. It sort of sounds like something that might have been big in 1997, but trying to force it into that box robs it of its good qualities. It’s got a great percussion track and a nice rhythm guitar line that insinuates itself into your bobbing head. When the chorus hits, Frank Smith sounds decidedly Frank Smith-ian, with a big dramatic (only lightly distorted) sound.

Elsewhere, the high points are when Frank Smith accidentally let that twang back in. You could easily imagine “One Day” covered by an alt-country band. From the harmonies to the tinkling piano to the acoustic guitar, it sounds like the best of alt-country and works tremendously well. Album closer “Chewing Glass” is more of a ballad, and has a great chorus that immediately stuck with me, and feels like the kind of song I’ve always known but never realized I had inside me.

Some of the rockier songs work really well, too. “How Many Ways,” with its use of a woozy synth melody line, sounds more like early 00’s rock – a sort of Fountains of Wayne-meets-Interpol – and is totally awesome. The driving “It’ll Be Over Soon” churns along through the verses and arrives at a typically great chorus – something Frank Smith are usually great at delivering. Yet for each of these rock-oriented winners, there’s a clunker like the plodding “Dinosaur” or the yell-y “Let’s Make Friends,” in which Sinclair abandons his normal baritone in favor of a shriller nasal yelp.

There are great songs on this record, to be clear. Aaron Sinclair is a great songwriter most of the time. It’s just not as streamlined and consistent as Before You Were Born, and I think it tries to repress some of the characteristics that make Frank Smith the great band that they are. Below is their SXSW schedule where you can catch them and decide for yourself:

3/9 – 3:00pm @ Holy Mountain (Convoy Con Queso party)
3/11 – 10:30pm @ The Mohawk (Barbarian Group & Vimeo party)
3/12 – 6:20pm @ Cheer Up Charlies
3/12 11:00pm @ Bar 96 (Frog Music Licensing party)
3/14 – 1:00am @ Creekside at Hilton Garden Inn (Official SXSW Showcase)
3/15 – 4:00pm @ 506 E. 6th St.
3/16 – 1:00pm @ The New Movement (Pop Press International party)

– Carter Delloro

* An earlier incarnation of this post incorrectly stated that Frank Smith’s press release cited Sonic Youth and Pavement as influences. They have not. Totally my bad.