Chicago power poppers Frisbie: Give 'em a toss.
Chicago power poppers Frisbie: Give 'em a toss.


You almost hate saying that Chicago quintet Frisbie is following in the tradition of bands such as Jellyfish, the Posies, Greenberry Woods, Zumpano and the Grays -- that's like condemning them as a brilliant talent and a surefire commercial flop.

Big Star drew up the power-pop template for failure two decades before, piling on Beatlesque harmonies at a time when all anyone wanted to hear were Zeppelinesque guitar solos. Think about it -- those artists lucky enough to get out of the commercial ghetto and move platinum units several times (Tom Petty, Romantics) got bounced from the power-pop category completely. More recently, artists who wave the flag for the genre (Teenage Fanclub, Matthew Sweet) have enjoyed the benefit of a major record label push, and the illusion that somebody somewhere was going play it on the radio or MTV. Today, power pop is the adult contemporary music of the new century, and bands like Frisbie are like the Tony Bennetts and Mel Tormes -- guys who stuck to their guns in the 1960s and made the quality popular music that the industry said was past its prime.

Possibly for that reason, anything that sounds too perfect, too harmony-sheened, elicits immediate distrust. It makes you think of the typical Poptopia/International Pop Overthrow entries that digest all the usual influences and then just go back to see what else is in the fridge. There's not a harmony out of place, and yet everything seems glib -- either too low on the power part or peaking in the red on the pop part.



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Frisbie is one of the rare breed that gets the balance just right. Check out the slow lurcher "Wrecking Ball," where you can not only imagine Crazy Horse playing it, but you can see Neil Young grinning maniacally as he's running down the chord changes with the band. And because Frisbie is a group that completely avoids guitar solos, what would normally be a fuzzy six-string workout instead kicks into a circular bass figure, which shifts into double time while the band sings about hearing bells. Just like the Cowsills! (Liam Davis, one of Frisbie's two vocalists, along with Steve Frisbie, sounds a lot like Bill Cowsill -- except on cheap CD players that spin way too fast, which is where I had the misfortune of first playing this one. There, he sounded like Bill Cowsill being attacked by wild geese. It was only after playing favorites by the Hollies, Beatles and even a "best of" the Cowsills that it became clear: On cheap CD players, everything with harmonies sounds like the Cowsills being attacked by wild geese -- especially the Cowsills.)

So do yourself a favor and find a CD player that works properly, and you won't miss any of the sonic details Frisbie generously crams into an album the group dares to call The Subversive Sounds of Love.

Amid a wall of resplendent vocals provided by Frisbie and Davis, there's keyboardist/utility man Ross Bergseth, who doubles on trumpet, ensuring that Frisbie, like San Francisco's Beulah, will be able to deliver the versatility of this album live. Elsewhere, on "Momentito," he adds a grating cheese Farfisa sound to put this track squarely in a garage circa 1966. And drummer Zack Kantor provides the most powerful fills since Big Star's Jody Stephens on "Pollyanna."

Granted, there are some questionable borrowings -- the chorus of the McCartneyesque ballad "Martha" sounds suspiciously like "I Wanna Know What Love Is" by Foreigner (Davis even sings "I want you to know-ho" in the exact spot as lonesome Lou Gramm). And then there's the good-timey closer "The Shuffle," which steps its way into the same chord progression as "Help!" But nobody should complain about two slight cops when the rest of this album succeeds at raising the power-pop bar higher than where the last great bands of the '90s left it.


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