Hearing Aide: Gary Frenay ‘File Under Pop Vocal’

The godfather of Syracuse’s power-pop scene, Gary Frenay has released a new, full-length, solo cd titled, File Under Pop Vocal. A founding member of The Flashcubes, and Screen Test, two of the area’s most important bands in the late seventies and early eighties. Frenay is a six-time SAMMY Award winner and the first musician to be inducted into the Syracuse Music Hall of Fame twice, once as a solo artist, again as a member of The Flashcubes. A very prolific writer who honors the molds of Lennon and McCartney, Brian Wilson, Todd Rundgren and Elvis Costello, he has issued three solo albums, plus ten more by his bands and duo with fellow Flashcube and Screen Test member, Arty Lenin.

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A two year project, File Under Pop Vocal is a collaboration with his longtime friend, Flashcubes drummer and producer, Tommy Allen. Tommy is producer and mixed all tracks at his NYC base, except #7 which is produced, arranged and mixed by Mark Doyle with drums recorded by Allen and #10 which is mixed by Ducky Carlisle, another Syracuse mainstay. Carlisle mastered at Ice Station Zebra in Medford MA.. Recorded in Syracuse, NYC, Boston and Tokyo, all of the songs here are by Frenay, besides #4 by Wilson/Rovell/Pamplin and #7 by Frenay/Doyle.

You can hear Tommy Allen on each track playing drums, percussion and a myriad of other instruments, plus lending background vocals. Together Frenay/Allen recruited some very big hitters to fill the vibe of each song, including the multi-talented Mark Doyle (guitars, keys, bass, etc.); guitarist Paul Carbonara (Blondie); Doug Worthington (Julian Lennon); mega-duo Pete and Maura Kennedy; Marshall Crenshaw (yes, that Marshall Crenshaw); longtime musical partner Artie Lenin; Japanese power-pop star Osamu Satoyama (Mayflowers); keyboardists Ed Vivenzio, Andy Burton (John Mayer), and Tommy Mandel (Bryan Adams); and Frenay’s son, multi-instrumentalist Nick Frenay (Nick and Noah). To get the proper individual credits, please see the actual liner notes. I’ll highlight some, but let the music talk through me for the most part.

‘Blue Topaz’ takes a big swing at the genre fence with a power-pop monster featuring a vocal hook that will make you believe Elvis is in the studio. When Frenay sings, “Let it shine for eternity, To remind us of, The way we felt on that day, I placed it on your finger, A blue topaz” and the harmonies and backing vocals soar, his voice clinches on the I in homage. It hits all of the bases with jangling guitars, a driving bass and Tommy’s pacing, this begs for the top to be down, clearing the romantic haze in a beautiful way, it’s just what happens under the spell of a muse. ‘Forgot How Good Love Feels’ follows in composition, but maybe a little earlier in the real story. It runs along at full pace, like new love does, it sprints, not wanting miss a stride. Until realization puts a shift on time and you float, slowly, in revelry. You know what I mean. ‘Our Eyes Have Voices’ is flat-out romantic and truly insightful, the strength of the topic combined with Frenay’s multiple background vocals tweaks at my influence alarm. Although I believe there is more than one influence at work on many of the tracks here, Frenay’s voice sings to them, expresses them with subtlety and individuality without waving a flag. His words and melodies move easily to the borders of his genre and reach beyond for tastes, his stories are real, it makes all of the difference. The musicianship and arrangement are pristine, distinct, clear and thoughtful. Nothing is more aurally pleasing than that.

Brian Wilson’s ‘It’s Like Heaven’ sounds like a Beach Boys/Beatles love child, played by Elvis Costello. Paul Carbonara’s slide is right out of the George Harrison play-book, Tommy’s drum sound is huge and the sweet backing vocals by Maura Kennedy and Nick Frenay carry Gary’s reading on a cloud. The production is like candy, surely the epitome of pop, and substantive of the album’s title, that continues track after track. ‘Winterview’ is a tale of reminiscence, an analogy of seasonal change and emotional cleansing. The Kennedys and Ed Vivenzio color the changes and fill the spaces so completely, along with Sam Crowes flute and Tommy’s string flourishes, they make the sadness seem palatable, though the feelings fade, they never quite go away. Frenay switches it up on ‘We Could Be Brothers’, an up-tempo power-popper that speaks to someone lost, but not forgotten. One of those meaningful people you lose track of over time, but don’t let slip your mind. Perhaps a new soul, that reminds us of an old soul. Osamu Satoyama’s guitar bites in all of the right places and Frenay’s voice exudes at the combination, his enthusiastic acoustic rhythm chimes in agreement. I can’t quite grasp it, but it’s either a high-plains western, eastern or a mix of both feels, either way it’s quite provocative.

‘It’s Your Heart’ sounds like it could’ve been written for a sixties chanteuse like Dionne Warwick, from Nick Frenay’s flugelhorn to Mark Doyle’s piano, organ, synth strings and electrics, it’s majestic like a single produced by “The Wrecking Crew.” The only track where another songwriter is co-credited,  Doyle’s mix and arrangement are sublime. Gary’s voice is so emotive, his backing tracks and Riley Mahan’s layers produce all that is good in pop music; like ‘You’re Only Hurting Yourself.’ Doyle starts the string intro, Carbonara on the electric rhythm, it’s a little Philly Soul, it’s Doyle bringing the “Ambrosia” So. Cal. piano and Artie Lenin drops a perfect solo. Nick Frenay adds background vocals in a level at which I needed to consult the artist to be sure all of the voices were credited. Fantastic! Frenay’s songwriting is at once, striking and stirring, there’s an innocence with a wink, assertiveness with a smile and resolution in a nod.

‘Everything But Love’ and ‘Luckiest Man’ close out the CD in very individual ways. E.B.T. has the ring and jangle of Lenin’s 12 string and harmonies, bolstered by Tommy Mandel’s piano and organ. Then the guitars roll in, Doug Worthington and Marshall Crenshaw add individual flavor, but the bridge to the solo is unmistakably Crenshaw and Worthington gives a monstrous solo. It’s a flavor of “Pretenders”, pure pop gloss, seamless in its fab four proclamations and eighties vibe. Lucky Man finishes softly, but substantially. No rhythm section, just Frenay’s voice and acoustic, Doyle’s piano and synth strings with Nick’s flugelhorn, expressing why songwriters write, singers sing, why lovers cry. A song for his wife and muse, his dedication to love and good fortune. Written beautifully, performed in the only way it can be, truthfully.

Although I attempted to focus on the music itself, when you have so many important pieces involved, each needs to be credited somehow. The level of musicianship, song-writing and production put together here is as precise and thoughtful as any available today. The compositions are intelligent and bright, sweet and bitter, all unrestrained. Follow the links provided to hear and learn about Frenay’s past and present, I believe you’ll find them both exhilarating. Check his facebook page and his blog WE CONNECT for stories, history and anything else that may be found under File Under Pop Vocal.

Key Tracks: ‘Blue Topaz,’ ‘Winterview,’ ‘You’re Only Hurting Yourself’