Sometimes, musical reinvention can be a vexing affair – just check out any piece of Metallica’s 1990s discography. Diehard fans are still trying to purge their memories of the heavy metal band’s placating power ballads and slapdash forays into alternative rock. Every now and then though, an aural facelift is nothing short of embarrassing. Bob Dylan’s Christmas in the Heart album from two years ago was well intentioned, but not even Jack Frost’s philanthropic efforts with the record could substantiate such excruciating takes on “Hark the Herald Angles Sing” and “The First Noel.”
If you were to take the media’s recent coverage of songwriter Frankie Rose at face value, it would appear that the ex-Dum Dum Girls drummer has consummated an unfathomable makeover, on par with Kiss ditching their rockist bombast for the intimacy of coffeehouse folk. This hypothetical example would likely garner the same reactions as my aforementioned Metallica or Bob Dylan scenarios; Frankie Rose’s recent change in palette is noteworthy because it’s completely plausible and – dare I say – predictable.
Shambling lo-fi rock had an unprecedented resurgence in popularity at the end of the past decade, with groups like Best Coast and the Raveonettes craftily paying simultaneous homage to 1960s girl-group pop and Sonic Youth-indebted post-punk. Caught up in the melee was Rose herself, whose tenure in Dum Dum, Crystal Stilts, and Vivian Girls evoked a similarly ramshackle spirit. Alas, this 21st century version of the C-86 movement reached its zenith two years ago, just as the polarizing phenomenon known as chillwave was making landfall. Every musical microcosm seems to eventually experience a rebirth via “post” or “core” qualifiers, and it would seem – thanks to the likes of M83, Neon Indian, Destroyer, and the closing track from Bon Iver’s last record – that we’ve now reached that point with all things 1980s. It’s always been admissible to cop the influence of Led Zeppelin or Jimi Hendrix or the Stooges, but did we ever think there’d be a time when the names of those titanic figures would be replaced by the likes of the Human League and Tears for Fears? That time is here now, and Frankie Rose has tactfully chosen to join in the not-so-tacit 30th anniversary celebration of the decade that brought us everything from the Brat Pack to Crocodile Dundee.
Interstellar, the first disc away from her backing band (the Outs), finds Frankie Rose distancing herself even further from the noise-pop scene she helped to revive some 5 years ago. While her one and only solo effort with the Outs showed her trending toward the hypnotic shoegaze of Black Tambourine and My Bloody Valentine, this latest offering largely dials down the presence of any guitar, leaving a potpourri of luminous synthesizers and wistful vocals that owe as much to the Cocteau Twins as they do Brian Eno.
Despite the pacifying tone that lingers when all has finished, Interstellar is not just a series of fluffy soundscapes; the opening titular track begins tentatively enough with dulcet chimes and synth drones, but it’s only a matter of time before a galloping drumbeat and a bold vocal riff come to the fore. Thumping 16th-notes rhythms persist from the bass as the song undergoes a transformation from tender meditation to soaring anthem. Irresistibly catchy, the song speaks to Rose’s facilities with both pop songwriting and assuaging ambience. Cuts like “Know Me” and “Gospel Grace” shine a light on similar strengths, with Rose fusing elements of New Wave and synth pop into gleaming 3-minute nuggets of earcandy.
Though Rose’s deliberate extraction of 80s touchstones evokes everyone from Billy Idol to the Cure, Interstellar is not lacking in atmospheric slowburners. “Daylight Sky” channels the same woozy, keyboard-based textures that informed Beach House’s Teen Dream, and “Pair of Wings” expounds on a vocal mantra (“All that I want / is a pair of wings to fly / into the blue wide open sky / show me your scars / I’ll show you mine”) that results in a chimerical finish of bellowing percussion and rich string countermelodies. Closing track “The Fall” is the most sublime example of all, as a cello bass line anchors a series of mesmerizing guitar patterns and keyboard echoes. Throughout it all, Rose’s voice retains a smoky and angelic quality, finding that cozy middle ground between Elizabeth Fraser and Hope Sandoval. Interstellar may not be the most enterprising album released this year, but there won’t likely be another one that so cogently captures the celestial side of an era known for its excesses.