March 17, 2014

LP: Frankie Cosmos - Zentropy

Sam Ray reflects on Frankie Cosmos' first studio album Zentropy.

I haven’t gotten to read a lot of the reviews of Frankie Cosmos’ new album Zentropy, but I’ve seen a lot of talk about it in the wake of them. While discussion of Greta Kline’s music has long existed in the various social circles I find myself floating around in, we’ve typically stuck to talking about how good her songwriting is and arguing over the best entry point to her vast, vast catalogue of bandcamp releases to show those still uninitiated. While Zentropy finally gives us that definitive record to point towards, a lot of the discussion around it that I’ve tenuously followed on social media has generally involved people missing the point of her music, and in doing so showing an unfamiliarity with what this kind of supposedly unassuming indie-pop historically has accomplished.

That’s not to say the record hasn’t been accruing the kind of praise it deserves; Kline’s songwriting alone is strong enough at this point to warrant it, and the arrangements her and Aaron Maine conjure up for the songs are the graceful and understated icing on the proverbial cake. However, with seventeen-odd minutes spread across ten tracks – none of which cross the three or even two and a half minute threshold – it’s easy enough to see why less attentive listeners might pass the record off as a relatively unimportant pop footnote, if a very well done one. “Important” records traditionally go to great lengths to present themselves as important, striving for an immediate reaction that, in the best scenario, might draw the listener to discover the themes-inherent underneath. The best and most lasting indie-pop records have never attempted to create such waves, however, and it speaks to Kline’s K-Records leaning sensibilities that she doesn’t show her hand so immediately.

That is to say, this kind of music has its roots in something a lot more subtly subversive than just breezy, nostalgic pop songs. There’s a reason Calvin Johnson and company opened for Black Flag at one point during the latter act's Henry Rollins years, and there’s a reason that Calvin himself has been one of the most vocal supporters of Greta’s music. Zentropy is an album that refuses to be written off, as long as you listen and pay attention. It feels somehow smaller and also much grander than its length and sonic scope would have you first believe. While it functions as a brief window into Kline’s life, the emotions and themes at its core are almost impossible not to connect with. By the time the closing track “Sad 2” starts, the faux-bombast of songs like “Buses Splash With Rain” and “Dancing In The Public Eye” is fully stripped away, leaving only subdued acoustic guitars accented by marimba and other minor textures. After previously touching on subjects like school, family, and love's respective anxieties, lines like “I made the appointment to kill my best friend / there goes my fear of death” feel like being punched in the stomach.

While “Sad 2” might be the records most striking song, it’s the penultimate track that best sums up Zentropy’s charms. “My I Love You” is nothing except the sound of a great song executed perfectly. For no more than a minute and a half, everything is in its right place, from the steadily rising and blossoming guitar textures to the subtle swell of something like cello or keyboard, to a rhythm section that exists solely as a punctuation mark around the chord changes. While a lesser artist might let the song act as a grace note leading into “Sad 2”, Kline allows it to burst suddenly and unexpectedly exactly one minute in, her voice reaching an awkwardly strident peak it never really attempts elsewhere on the album. This lasts only ten or fifteen seconds before retreating back into the subdued refrain one last time. It’s a moment that perfectly sums up Zentropy and its place in indie-pop canon. It plays comfortable enough but at any time throughout it might rise suddenly and defy itself. It feels perfectly predictable until it’s not; pop music suddenly and unexpectedly subverted for just long enough to show its teeth. Joanna Gruesome achieved the same effect recently through moments of thrashing guitars and blast-beat drums, but Kline achieves it by building a nest of small, lived-in songs and personal, earnest lyrics before allowing everything to turn itself inside out, if only for a moment. Whether it’s sonically as on "My I Love You" or lyrically as on “Sad 2”, it’s that kind of unpredictability that compels you to listen again and again, investigating each track over and over, until suddenly a seventeen minute pop album is a much longer and much more thorough achievement.


Listen to Frankie Cosmos on bandcamp.

Sam Ray lives mostly in Maryland and writes a lot of different songs under a lot of different names. In 2012, he watched every episode of Home Movies over twenty times but he's doing okay now. He talks more on Twitter and you can listen to his music wherever.