The Frogs versus The Jayhawks 

The sticker on their new CD Smile says that the Jayhawks were “named one of the most influential bands of the decade by Rolling Stone and Spin.” Such high praise is very nice, but all any review can do is to influence you to listen to something—not dictate that you’ll actually like what you hear.

What really matters is whether, after the music enters your ears, it resonates with any other part of you. Does it make you wanna shake your booty? Do the sweet harmonies kick your tongue into high gear? Does the tender songwriting stir your soul?

First, a confession: In 1992, the Jayhawks’ Hollywood Town Hall was basically the soundtrack for one of the most interesting, exciting, and downright resonant periods of my life. During a bus ride which found me isolated and Walkman-less, I entertained myself by lip-synching that entire work—guitar solos and all—as it ran a continuous loop in my cranium.

Getting past the issue of whether I need my head examined, the fact that Hollywood Town Hall was so meaningful to me affects my assessment of any subsequent Jayhawks work in two ways. First, it makes me want to like their music. But it also puts the ‘Hawks up on a pedestal so high that it’s awful tough to reach.

While they’ve managed two excellent records in the interim, I was a little cool on Smile at first. Sure, a band should evolve, and I’d rather not have the Jayhawks try to remake Hollywood Town Hall every time they record.

The Jayhawks have grown, even rallying past the departure of primary singer-songwriter Mark Olson to put out a mighty fine—and very different—Sound of Lies in 1997. Smile is different still, featuring a textured, sophisticated sound that might come off as sounding pretty slick upon first listen.

“This is more of a ‘we’ record than the ‘me’ record that Sound of Lies was,” said singer-songwriter-guitarist Gary Louris, who became the Jayhawks’ undisputed frontman upon Olson’s departure. “We wanted to explore some new territory without pretending to be somebody else.”

Earlier today, with an unsettled weekend winding down peacefully, I tuned in to Smile’s “What Led Me To This Town.” I perked up as Louris sang: “Dazed at first, but shaking off/the Sunday gloom/What led me to this town?”

Reflecting on the pertinence of that line, I realized that these tunes from Smile are starting to sink in a bit. They’ve also got my tongue a-wagging. And maybe, just maybe, they’re also starting to stir my soul.

Will Smile do the same for you? Well, there’s just one way to find out. (RS)

The Frogs
Bananimals
4 Alarm Records

Lennon and McCartney. Rodgers and Hammerstein. Jagger and Richards. All great and prolific songwriting teams to be sure, but none even half as prolific as Flemion and Flemion, the siblings collectively known as The Frogs. For the past 20 years, the Brothers Flemion, along with a host of bass-playing friends who have included the Breeders’ Kim Deal and Smashing Pumpkins alum D’Arcy, have set about to name-drop and offend virtually every major figure in rock from Steve Albini to Wesley Willis, all the while taking wickedly funny pot-shots at celebrities and leading listeners to believe in a bizarre musical crusade they have described as gay supremist folk.

Granted, not everyone will find The Frogs humorous. In fact, more than a few critics have been apt to simply write them off as talentless asses with no real right to a recording contract of any kind. But to come to that conclusion in most cases means embracing denial and avoiding self-examination on any level. It may not be a pleasant revelation to find yourself unconsciously tapping your foot to songs whose subject matter is one or more of the following: sex among priests, sex with priests, sex change disasters, pedophiles, jocularly executed killing sprees and, well, you get the picture. But the fact of the matter is that some of The Frogs’ material is simply too well done and bitingly funny not to warrant an ashamed belly laugh.

Bananimals, The Frogs’ latest long-player on the courageous 4 Alarm label, is a quaint amalgam of the weird guitar- or piano-based folk-style songs that make up much of the band’s early recordings (including countless tapesful of spontaneously constructed songs) and the more fleshed-out tracks that appear occasionally on later albums like My Daughter the Broad (Matador) and Starjob (Scratchie). With Jimmy Flemion switching between electric and acoustic guitar and sharing vocals with his drummer/keyboardist brother Dennis, The Frogs shamelessly aim and fire with deadly accuracy at Pavement, Jerry Lewis, aging homosexual men and women who dare even approach them, among other, more non sequitur topics such as the music business, missing children and a guy named Arnold who is apparently related to Jack, to whom we were first introduced on My Daughter the Broad.

What you won’t find on Bananimals—or on any other Frogs record for that matter—are calculated attempts to write the next hit single and its come-from-outta-nowhere B-side. In fact, you won’t find much of anything calculated at all. Just surprisingly effective melodies, bizarre hooks and lyrics that will make you glad you don’t live with mommy anymore. You’ll also find yourself on one hell of a funny ride through some pretty unfunny territory. Enjoy. (MH)

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