Thursday, 21 August 2008

Album review: Frank Bango - The Sweet Songs of Decay

Frank Bango - I Saw The Size Of The World (alt source)

It's 14 years since Frank Bango released his first record - The Sweet Songs Of Decay is his fourth. It's also one of the best records released this year and this is no small praise considering there's been Radiohead's In Rainbows, Elbow's The Seldom Seen Kid, and Los Campesinos' Hold On Now, Youngster!, all of which are utterly fantastic. The Sweet Songs of Decay is complex but simple, emotional but funny, capable of being childish but adult in meaning, easily accessible but containing great depth, happy but sad. It is perhaps the ultimate bittersweet album.

Bango sets out his stall in an ironically titled opening track "You Always Begin By Saying Goodbye". The message is clear: savour how beautiful life is because your time is short. And in the ultimate of unfunny ironies, Frank Bango was diagnosed with cancer the day after he put the final touches to the mastering.

Well the moment is here, but the moment is fleeting
You walk in a room and it feels like you're leaving
I can't slow you down so I won't even try
You always begin by saying goodbye

Well the clock has two faces so it isn't surprising
That for each setting sun there's one that is rising
You can capture time but it's your hands that are tied
Because you always begin by saying goodbye

Before you drive to the ends of the earth you should just sit in the car
Before you go where you think you should be, allow yourself to be where you are
Becase the moment is here but without it's only a minute
It'll settle on somebody else unless you put youself in it
I would have been happy to meet you but you never even said hi
Because you always begin by saying goodbye

The music is pure and perfect power pop with beautifully constructed vocal harmonies. There's just something very special about Frank Bango's sound. It is at once familiar - you can hear echoes of the Beach Boys, the Kinks, Elvis Costello - and something new. Each time a track begins it's like you've just rediscovered a long lost but much loved song from your youth: hairs rise on the back of your neck with nostalgia; you kind of know where each song is going but you've forgotten some of the beautiful details and as the track sweeps past you experience the joy of uncovering something that you've been missing for years without being aware of it.

In each track Bango finds something new and wonderful (in the true sense of the word) to appreciate. In "She'll Miss The Spider" the female protagonist becomes fascinated by 'a graveyard without circumstance or saint, behind the mousetrap and the empy cans of paint', realising that 'there's something beautiful in everything that crawls'. She listens to 'the buzz of the captured flies, the sweet songs of decay' and realises that 'she'll miss the spider when the web is wiped away'. My favourite track has a slightly more conventional theme (though the same underlying message): it's the spine-tingle-inducing ode to love and the girl who 'could outshine the sun', "Summerdress". It's the music that gets me here: beautiful string countermelodies and bursts of vocal harmony sweep you away. It's maybe a bit early to say, but this could be one of my favourite tracks of all time.

But the message isn't quite as simple as 'everything is beautiful if you only took the time to appreciate it'. Life isn't perfect. In "I Saw The Size Of The World", Bango imagines the excitement that a worm - the ultimate agent of decay - feels when it crawls out of the ground . At one point the worm realises it will never be able to fly - but it throws itself into the wind. But as "If A Plane Goes Down" shows Bango believes that life's sadnesses and tragedies serve to make the good times all the more beautiful, giving more meaning to love:
I haven't seen you for so many years
But I still remember your face.
Still as each passing year brings more danger and fear
I only hope that you'll always be safe
And Bango is able to find beauty even in death. The last track with vocals on the album is "What This Place Needs", in which Bango suggests that the world will be even more beautiful once there are no humans around to fuck things up. And this is realised in the very final track, "Gardenvariety", which is nothing more than a three minute recording of birds singing. It's a striking way to end a wonderful album and what it says (I think) is: even when death - the ultimate Bad Thing - happens, beauty will still continue.

There is an enormous amount to be said about this album; I haven't written anywhere near as much as I could. Dear reader, there's still loads left for you to enjoy discovering - buy it now and enrich your life. The Sweet Songs Of Decay was released on July 22nd, and is available from iTunes (download only) and CDBaby (download and physical copy). And if you're in New York on August 26th (that's Tuesday night people!), get down to the Bowery Ballroom to enjoy the Frank Bango Bone-Marrow-Thon-Stem-Cell-A-Bration which features music from Simone White, Scott Matthew, Victoria Williams, Richard Buckner, Dean & Britta, Nada Surf (acoustic), Sam Champion and other special guests. Tickets are $20 and all money goes towards helping Frank through his treatment and to worthwhile volunteer organisations.

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