The transformation of 1980s synth pop from a frequently mocked fad into a respectable modern genre has been glorious to behold. With her fourth album, Cage Tropical, Frankie Rose adds her own distinctive voice to the fray, even as she forges new ground.
In the four years since Rose released Herein Wild, the singer/songwriter moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, experienced a crisis of musical faith, worked on a catering truck and ended up back in Brooklyn with a batch of new songs and a determination to turn her misery into something positive. The result is 10 thrilling tracks that teeter in that liminal place between ecstasy and heartbreak, usually within the same song.
Several of these compositions directly point to Rose’s dark period in Los Angeles; “a wheel of wasting my life here” marks the chorus of opening song “Love In Rockets,” which could also be a reference to one of her musical forebears. The album’s title track turns the enviable So Cal climate into a kind of prison (“special kind of hell on a sunny day”). A line like “trouble follows you / if you run / no matter where you run” (from “Trouble”) puts her situation into stark perspective, while the title of instrumental track “Epic Slack” says much without using any words.
“Art Bell” name checks the long-time host of the paranormal-themed radio show “Coast to Coast AM,” someone in whom Rose found solace during her months of self-doubt and insomnia. It’s both creepy and catchy, like an updated version of Blondie’s “Fade Away and Radiate.”
Blondie and the aforementioned Love and Rockets aren’t the only influences on Cage Tropical. The sci-fi flavored “Dyson Sphere” opens with a guitar melody that’s more than a little reminiscent of Flock of Seagulls’ “Nightmares,” while the eerie stillness of Shriekback’s “The Big Hush” is reflected in the somber tones of “Dancing Down the Hall.” “Decontrol” even comes across like the sibling to Nik Kershaw’s “Know How.”
Yet beyond the syncopated drumming, Robert Smith-style guitar, bass chorus pedals and the interplay between piano and retro synth sounds, there is Frankie Rose’s astonishing voice, a surprising synthesis of Cocteau Twins’ Liz Fraser and The Sundays’ Harriet Wheeler. Multi-tracked vocals and harmonies make magic out of Rose’s particular tone; her voice whispers like fog one moment and peals like church bells the next.
Nowhere is this more apparent than on “Red Museum,” an otherworldly tune that evokes the spooky beauty of Kate Bush through its jangling guitars and minor chord melodies. The chorus is breathtaking, like a thunderstorm on a brilliant summer day. It’s so joyous that lyrics like “Everything you know is a lie / and the love you have will die” slide down smoothly, accompanied by so many spoonfuls of sugar.
What role does nostalgia play in the enjoyment of Cage Tropical? Is there a way to differentiate between the fresh voice of Frankie Rose and my admitted obsession with the music of my formative years? Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if the music brings this much joy. And it does.
Cage Tropical was released by Slumberland Records/Grey Market on August 11, 2017.
Less Lee Moore (@popshifter) is the Editor in Chief of Popshifter, which she founded in 2007. She also writes for Rue Morgue, Everything Is Scary, Biff Bam Pop and Modern Horrors.