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Frankie Cosmos waste no space on Vessel, an exercise in measured perfection

“But as god said crossing his legs,
“I see where I have made plenty of poets
but not so very much poetry””
-Charles Bukowski

This quote plagued my mind after my first listen through of Vessel, the new album by Frankie Cosmos. It took me a solid hour of racking my brain, and then rummaging through Google, before I actually found it. When I realised that it was from a Bukowski poem I was surprised and began doubting my writerly intuitions. At a glance his works seem disparate and largely incompatible with the intimate observational pieces by songwriter Greta Kline.

Where she is gentle, empathetic and subtle he is brash, deliberately abrasive and full of an ugly bravado. However, the more my mind turned it over the more the parallel made sense. Both artists are certainly disarming, albeit for very different reasons, but the feature that ties them together is their lack of artifice.

Many have argued that Bukowski was a bad poet, or indeed not one at all. He wasn’t interested in fancy language, clever rhymes and complicated metaphors. He wanted his poems to elicit a response. He wanted to draw blood with his words. Anything else was secondary.

frankie cosmos vessel

On Vessel, Frankie Cosmos are perennially lulling you into a positive daze, or slapping you across the face with an offhand realisation.

Greta Kline, and the ethos that underpins her band Frankie Cosmos, share a similar sentiment to Bukowski. Make no mistake, the musicianship and songwriting on display on Vessel is nuanced and hugely impressive. It is full of art. It’s just that the artifice we have become so used to in modern pop music is entirely absent.

There isn’t a single musical note that feels indulgent or superfluous. There isn’t a lyrical line that could be described as filler, or worse manipulative. Kline’s words and phrasing have a surgical precision that is rarely heard in music, reminding me more of great comedians or other orators. Each element is a needle with a specific target; be that to elicit a smile, head-bop or tear.

The album is stoic, measured and sparse with no wasted space. The 18 tracks make up a modest runtime of 34 minutes, with no song coming close to the four minute mark. Despite this the emotional content of the album is fully realised and rewarding; emboldened by brevity rather than hindered by it.

Lead singles Apathy, Being Alive and Jesse are a great introduction to the album. They are engaging and affecting, while also conforming most closely to what people think of as ‘normal songs’. They also immediately demonstrate the sonic progression the band has made, becoming a jagged, jangly and dynamic unit that sound completely in sync. What started as a bedroom project has developed into something far more slippery and difficult to define.

The drumming of Luke Pyenson is deserving of a special mention. His ability to find the groove is great. However, the way that he changes tempo and pulls out of songs altogether borders on genius. In fact, the entire band demonstrate a keen understanding between each other in the way that they constantly dial back their own playing to emphasise each other and Kline’s voice.

It means that the songs never feel cluttered, yet contain enough variety and energy to maintain the listener’s attention. It means that you are completely present when Kline hits you with a quietly devastating line like “I just want to know that I would walk away from wrong”.

Vessel, other than its singles, is mostly made up of very short songs that defy convention. It is tempting to describe them as sketches, but that would imply an incompleteness that they simply don’t suffer from. They are beautiful statements that make the album feel fresh and unexpected.

I’m Fried, Bus Bus Train Train, The End and As Often As I Can are short songs that land punches far more weighty than one would expect given their length. They are critical to how the album functions as a whole, and highlights in their own right. In fact, without them Frankie Cosmos would lose a great deal of their identity, and in turn what makes Vessel so special.

This idea of identity is important to understanding and appreciating Vessel. It’s an extremely personal album that bulldozes the barriers that artists often erect to protect themselves. Kline doesn’t hide behind narratives, characters or extended metaphors. She sings to her audience like one would converse with a friend. the songs confessional in function rather than tone.

This approach may prove somewhat divisive amongst a wider audience; the rawness of it all being potentially off-putting to those that want their music to offer escapism rather than introspection. However, those looking for art that refuses to hide its heart beneath its exterior will be hard pressed to find anything as rewarding as Vessel.

It also doesn’t hurt that the exterior, or rather the music itself, is as gorgeous and unique as it is.

 

Vessel is out March 30 via Sub Pop.

Alastair Cairns is the singer/songwriter/troubadour of Sydney rock act Wells. He is definitely qualified for this position. He resides over here.

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March 29, 2018

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