The Frampton Brothers don’t mean anything by the smart-aleck name: the Pittsburgh quartet’s goodnatured roots pop doesn’t betray a trace of voice-tube guitar or ’70s nostalgia. Singer/guitarist/journalist Ed Masley, whose bratty punk warble suggests Gordon Gano after successful therapy, is a skilled, unpretentious songwriter with a battered post-adolescent outlook but a resilient spirit. (There’s a graduate thesis to be written on the relationship between chronic romantic disappointment and consistent melodic genius…) On I Am Curious (George), produced by former Scruffy the Cat frontman Charlie Chesterman, he complains mildly about the “Big Stoopid World,” notes that “She Won’t Talk to Me” and promises “to find my place in the sand.” He and Sean Lally pour sprightly guitar all over the modest and engaging record, giving an instrumental shoutout to “Leonard Zelig,” covering Peter Holsapple’s indignant “Why’d You Sleep With My Girlfriend?” and wondering about the personal relevance of what “Brian Wilson Said.” Best rhyme: “Lyin’ in his bed with an 8- track cartridge / Dreamin’ of the secret life of Keith Partridge.”
Don’t Fall Asleep, also mainly produced by Chesterman, is a bit tougher in its rock resolve (the addition of garagey organ contributes to the revised feel), but that doesn’t undercut the sharp wit of Masley’s culture-maven commentary in “Like an Oliver Stone” (“you took the ’60s and you made ’em your own”) or the winsome charm of “I’m in Love With the Label Rep” and “(I Wanna Be Your) Furniture.” Meanwhile, “You Didn’t Have to Listen,” a plea for teen rejection of parental bigotry, reveals reassuring real-world awareness.
With no significant diminution in appeal, the six-song Frampton Brothers Hate You finds the group, rocking harder and faster than ever, in the throes of losing its sense of humor, replacing bemused observation with sardonic disillusion going on unreserved anger: “Overly Optimistic Blues” (“there’s no happy ending in sight”), “Touch of Shit” (“you can save your happy endings”), “Ain’t No Parade” (“I guess if it’s not raining, darling, ain’t no parade”). Young Fresh Fellow Scott McCaughey shares credit for recording and mixing with producer Conrad Uno and plays on one (unspecified) track.
Produced by Uno in Seattle (“42 hrs from Pittsburgh with us at the wheel”), the Framptons institutionalize their despair on File Under F (for Failure) but retain a sense of indignant amusement and ironic wit about the futility of it all. (Actually, on balance, the album is not as downhearted as the title promises.) “The Beginning of the End of the Fun Years,” “My Little Sense of Doom,” “Budge” and the title track mine frustration and pessimism with stirring rock guitars and a minimum of loser self-pity; on the other hand, “Drag,” “Fucked” and “Shit-Colored Glasses” turn the loathing outward. Masley’s day job as the Pittsburgh paper’s music critic meet his fanboy sensibilities to fun insider effect in “Dressing Room” and “She’s Reading All the Wrong Fanzines (Again).” All buoyed by music that is diverse, tuneful and catchy (don’t miss “Evil Twin” and the country-western “Drunk”), File Under F proves that failure is a perfectly valid option.
After that, the Framptons talked themselves from underdoggery into permanent submission. With no appreciable improvement in his half-empty worldview, Masley applied his superlative power pop instincts into a fine new loserpop band, the Breakup Society. Loud, sweet and pungently memorable (reminiscent, as few recent bands have been, of Let’s Active), James at 35 begins with an iconic blast of cultural genius, “Robin Zander,” a roaring catchy rush in which Masley wonders — in the form of an open letter — why every girl he ever had a crush on had an even bigger thing for the handsome Cheap Trick singer. The rest of the album, which has former Frambro Lally on lead guitar, is equally winsome and personal, whether namechecking another world-famous star (“The New Ronnie Spector”) or a local attraction (“Corn Palace”), recalling academic frustrations (“Introduction to Girls”) or dissecting a more intimate exchange (“She’s Using Words Like Hurt Again” and “Favorite Shorts”). “She Doesn’t Know She’s Not Supposed to Like Me Yet” (which alludes melodically to both Blondie and the Beatles) is indicative of the lengths to which our hero is willing to go to avoid (over)confidence; fortunately, the full-throated guitar pop buoys and boosts the lyrics, so what could easily seem dispirited and self-pitying comes off wry and resilient. In one of the cutest liner notes seen in some time, a plug for E-mailing the band mentions “romantic advice (for us, not you).”
Taking an unspoken cue from Bob Dylan (“…cares not to come up any higher / But rather get you down in the hole / That he’s in”), Masley levels the playing field on Nobody Likes a Winner, an ode to the idea that if he can’t be happy or successful, then why should any one else entertain such absurd ambitions? A glorious hail of conviction, wit and energy, the album acknowledges futility on all fronts (“The World Will Change Our Love,” “Lower Expectations,” “How Failure Saved Me From Myself”) but doesn’t take a solo fall this time. The title song is absolutely delicious, warning against the ambition and success that leaves people behind (“You never shoulda gotten so much better than the way you were”). “I Didn’t Mean to Wreck Your Day” likewise shares the blame, “This Little Tragedy” actually shrinks, rather than magnifies, a problem. Throughout, the quartet plays with loose-limbed but road-tightened precision, ably documented by producer/multi-instrumentalist Bob Hoag. McCaughey is on hand again (he sings lead on “By a Thread”), and Ward Dotson of the Pontiac Brothers adds background vocals as well. Not to jinx it or anything, but Nobody Likes a Winner is one. Highly recommended to fans of the now-defunct Bigger Lovers.