Sometimes vague genre labels actually do peg specific bands. AC/DC, for example, embodies cock-rock. The Rapture’s sound couldn’t really be called anything other than an even mixture of “dance” and “punk.” In my mind, Frances is the epitome of that strange little subgenre called "chamber pop." Granted, the members of this swingin’ Brooklyn sextet might not see themselves that way. But to me they’ve overhauled a much trod-upon musical field — and set themselves up as the standard to beat.
On the opening track of the band’s full-length debut, All the While, horns, strings and piano all swell up in unison from the ether, soon joined by drums to punch a single chord into submission. Singer, keyboardist and nominal band leader Paul Hogan guides us through the first few verses before his female cohorts, Julia Tepper and Stephanie Skaff, take the reins on a gorgeous chorus section.
“All the while, the world is slowly caving in,” they sing, sweetly enough to gloss over the doomsday sentiment.
And all the while, the group’s various musical implements are breaking off from the main melodic figure, contributing clever little phrases to the bigger picture. It’s undeniably pop, but with the agility and depth of a cinematic score. The result is the sort of hooks that grab immediate attention but bloom in complexity with repeated listens. It wasn’t until my fifth play through that I really started to pick up on all the hidden nooks and trapdoors contained within these songs.
It’s a major credit to Hogan and friends, who use their varied instrumentation for more melodramatic fireworks. A laughing gaggle of woodwinds provides the main draw to the nostalgic bounce of “Telephone,” strings lend vital shading to the swooning ballad “Tomorrow Gold,” and the band even crafts its own version of the apocalyptic “A Day in the Life” crescendo on “The New Decoy.”
Really, the only thing holding this group back is the singing. When cast against the album’s sumptuous instrumental backdrops, Hogan, Tepper and Skaff’s vocals seem especially thin and wobbly. They make do within their limitations, however. The track “Steady” also earns some unexpected bonus points for a lead vocal performance that sounds like a dead ringer for the Velvet Underground’s Moe Tucker.
Those concerns aside, All The While nails its grand aesthetic. It never descends to the pomposity of similar artists like the Divine Comedy, but still forges a friendly marriage between accessibility and mystery. Call it “chamber pop” or just call it like it is: a phenomenal debut album.