It’s kind of a cockish thing to say, but in a fortnight where it’s all been about PJ Harvey and Radiohead, it feels a little deflatory to be turning one’s attention to Frankie & The Heartstrings. And it is a cockish thing to say, because odds are that more people will derive a greater amount of genuine, no frills, no bullshit, honest-to-god pleasure from Hunger than they ever will from The King of Limbs's hostile ambience or the charnel visions of Let England Shake.
But you know… that doesn’t make it better, and while there are some moments of transcendentally dazzling pop nous on display on Hunger, it is, fundamentally a cosy, harmless record in a retro stylee, made by an all accounts pleasant bunch of musicians who have enjoyed a fairly smooth – by today’s standards – ride to where they are now. Accepting a formidable live reputation, approximately their edgiest attribute is the fact they didn’t make the BBC Sound of 2011.
Still, the last thing the world needs is another old twat muttering darkly about ‘edge’. Frankie & the Heartstrings are unabashed about how enamoured they are of the glory days of Postcard Records: they’ve cheerily encouraged the ‘Sound of Young Sunderland’ tag that’s been bestowed upon them; they’ve actually got a song called ‘That Postcard’; and, more significantly, they’ve roped Edwyn Collins in on production duties. The result is rather more sparkly, rather less scratchy than prime Orange Juice, but nonetheless, at their very best, Frankie can bash out a tune that goes toe-to-toe with anything in their mentor’s back catalogue. And by ‘at their best’, I am referring to ‘Ungrateful’. Their single of last year, it’s the type of song that in itself justifies forming a band in the first place, the sort of track you can bust out for the benefit of your mistrustful, indifferent-to-music, probably a bit racist, refuses to reinstate you in his will until you get an office job, er, dad, and he’ll sort of get why you're doing all this. A cleanly cresting minor key guitar figure advances implacably, shimmering, drowning waves of mannered sound. “Every time I see you I love you less” intones Frankie Francis in by far his most affecting vocal on the record, sobbing Fifties balladeer seething with a corrosive venom. Dramatic pauses punctuate the track, but despite the self-conscious showmanship, I don’t doubt the sentiment for a second when Francis whoops “there comes a point when I wish that you were… dead”. Toss in some shouty harmonies and an irresistible chanty coda and you’re set, a perfect pop song about the limits of love and obsession: juvenile, romantic and envenomed.
Buuuuut… where ‘Ungrateful’ nails it with a mix of the polish and poison, nothing else really matches it in either the tune or the sentiment stakes. Though definitely filtered through the likes of Orange Juice and Dexy’s (maybe even Springsteen – ‘Possibilities’ is a dead ringer for ‘You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)’, the rock’n’roll/skiffle vibe that permeates the likes of ‘Photograph’ and ‘Hunger’ – and indeed young Gordon Ramsay-alike Francis’s whole general ‘look’ – just isn't as exhilarating as it ought to be. Britain’s squeaky clean rock’n’rollers of the late Fifties were, as, a rule, pretty anaemic next to their US counterparts, and one can’t help but feel Frankie is more in the tradition of Adam Faith than Jerry Lee Lewis. It’s all pleasant, well observed and essentially fun, but there's nothing about a jangly little rocker like ‘That Postcard’ to elevate it beyond puppyishly enthusiastic pastiche; there’s no lasciviousness or scuzz, no sense of things going off the rails… no hunger.
But you know, how many indie bands are making this type of stuff at the moment? Not many, is the answer, and certainly Frankie’s whole general thing will almost certainly seem rather fresher to the many people who haven’t yet discovered the joys of The Sun Sessions/You Can’t Hide Your Love Forever/who still take some uncynical joy out of life.
6Andrzej Lukowski's Score