Monday, December 5, 2011

'Sooner' a real kick of a debut

There’s always a danger of confusing artist and art or stories and storytellers, especially when dealing with first-person perspective — like on “Girl of Little Faith,” one of the tracks on “Sooner,” the bleak-but-cathartic debut album from Liz Frame and the Kickers, in which a life-hardened narrator who has been kicked around long enough to be drained of hope, faith and even the possibility of redemption, rejects the old saw that good things come to those who wait. Nothing could be further from the truth for Frame, the Newburyport-based songwriter who decided to dive back in after nearly two decades away from the music scene and, much to her surprise, is making a big splash. It wasn’t supposed to be a big deal, just playing out once in a while at open mikes, not so much trying to jump-start the career that would have or could have been if she hadn’t walked away from it all those years ago, as much as trying to provide a creative outlet for the music that, career or not, still bubbled up inside her. She made an impression quickly, picking up fans and accomplices — and, before she knew it, she had a band. “It all came together in such an effortless way, it just felt right,” she says.
The Kickers, which takes its name from a line in “Grievous Angel,” the Gram Parsons song, began playing out three years ago, building a reputation for country-based performances with solid playing, tight harmonies and just plain looking good on stage. The Kickers started getting some traction. Their dance card started filling up. And they started playing some high-profile gigs, opening for, among others, The Mystix, a rootsy supergroup featuring ex-Duke and the Drivers frontman Jo Lilly. And now, with just one personnel change along the way, the band is ready to release its first full-length album, an all-original debut produced by Bobby Keyes, a local ace who has recorded and performed with everybody from Jerry Lee Lewis to Mary J. Blige.
 Framing the argument
Frame, 50, grew up in a musical family, listening to everything from Beethoven to BB King — “and absorbed most of it,” she says. She wrote her first song at nine, started playing guitar at 14. She knew what she wanted to do with her life. She bounced around a lot, landing in Boston in the 1980s. She jumped into the Hub’s country music/rockabilly scene, playing into the’90s, fronting her own band and getting interest from major and indie labels, but no deal. Then, in a story as old as the business itself, marriage and motherhood forced a decision: unless you’re willing to do 250 shows a year and schmooze full time — unless you’re willing to eat it, breathe it, live it every minute of every day — no one will give you the time of day.

 She moved to Newburyport in 1993 to be closer to her parents, who had abandoned the city. The dream was still alive. Barely. She played out, she made contacts, generated some interest but, in the end, couldn’t go all in. The dream faded. Life intervened. She raised her daughter and found honest work, opening Fancy Schmancy, an artists’ outlet that also sells vintage jewelry and accessories in Newburyport and settled in for the long haul.

 Things changed four years ago, when her mother died. “I decided life’s too short to not do the things you love,” says Frame. She hadn’t played guitar, let alone written anything substantial, in years, but she wanted to “get out.” She started playing out. She met percussionist Kristine Malpica, who ran Imagine Studios, a one-stop arts center in Amesbury, at an Imagine-sponsored open mike at the now-defunct J. Bucks. She introduced Frame and John Longo, late of Crazy Maggy, the furious North Shore-based rad-trad band fronted by E. J. Ouellette; bassist Lynne Taylor, a veteran of the Newburyport music scene, saw the trio play and wanted in.

 The sound is not easy to nail down. It’s acoustic. There are no drums, per se. Malpica plays the cajone, a box-like instrument played by slapping the front face with your hands. But the unplugged sound is surprisingly, effective raw — with that rawness tempered by sweet harmonies. Country? Yes. But more Bakersfield and Austin than Nashville. Sometimes there's a taste of bluegrass and rockabilly. It has a tell-tale twang, but also a dusty soul vibe and — Frame does not apologize for this — a pop sensibility. Call it alt-country or Americana. Call it what you want. She cites the usual suspects — Haggard, Cash, Yokum and Lang — as major influences, but also names people like Fionna Apple and Aretha Franklin.

 The band mixes it up in concert, playing originals and covers that are, alternatively, seemingly tailor-made for them, like the Stones’ “Dead Flowers,” or strikingly odd, like Billy Idol’s “Rebel Yell” — even “Urgent,” the schlock staple of rock radio all those years ago — and, Frame admits, a guilty pleasure. All the covers are filtered through a country vibe. Shows would also have a kind of Carter Family feel, with Kicker family members taking the spotlight: Taylor burning up the stage with “That’s All Right Mama,” Longo whipping out the steel guitar with something suitably bluesy.

They’ve put out two EPs over the past couple of years. The first with three originals, staples of the Kicker concerts, a cover —”Rebel Yell.” The second following the same form, with three originals covering the range of human love, from filled up and broken hearts to threats of vengeance — and a cover of Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love,” which strips all the groovy from the flower power classic to reveal a world of hurt drowning in a subtext of sin — perhaps not definitive, but a nice taste of what the band does.

Sooner or later
It’s been a pretty intense couple of months. Frame has been holed up in the studio, mixing the new record, which can be intense and often boring at the same time — and trying to get everything done by the Oct. 22 release date. “We’re cutting it close,” she says, “but I think we’ll make it.” She’s also had to audition and rehearse a new Kicker. Longo, who’s been with the band since the beginning and who Frame credits with “helping us find our sound in a major way,” won’t be there. He left in September to pursue his own thing. It was the first change to the original line-up.
 Frame stepped back from the obvious path — finding a fourth female for the band, making the Kicks all chicks — saying it was too gimmicky and defining, although many fans, male and female, have commented about “the female energy” of the band. They placed an ad on Craigslist and came up with Chuck Melchin, late of the Bean Pickers Union, the Boston-based Americana outfit. He’ll play guitar and mandolin. He made his debut at the record release party at Newburyport’s revered Firehouse Center for the Arts.

 As for the album, think dark. Aside from “Don’t Play with Guns,” a kick-ass rocker, it’s a pretty bleak, lonely landscape. The album opens with the “Win,” which looks at a woman in an abusive relationship with a junkie — yeah, good times. There’s one song with God in the title (“God Doesn’t Like His Women to Be Left Alone”) and another that names the other guy (“(The Devil Put a) Bullseye on my Back”) — metaphysical bookends to temporal, human concerns.

 There’s one sort-of love song, “Come Back to Me,” about a woman dismissing her lover, but with the proviso that he come back whenever he’s lonely — a song that should be paired/contrasted with “Sooner,” the title cut, in which the guy gets shown the door and is encouraged to just keep moving. She’s moved on and feels sorry — ouch! — for the guy. Frame originally saw “Sooner” as a pop song, but it morphed into straight-ahead country — a slow, sad ballad, but one with a bluegrass back. The idea came from a line — “You should have come to me sooner” —which she filed away. In her head. She knew it would come out sooner or later, when it was time.  “It’s not efficient," she says, "but it’s the way I work.”

Keyes is all over the record, so is percussionist Charlie Farr, and session heavies Duke Levine and Kevin Berry, currently with Peter Wolf and the Midnight Travelers.

“Sooner,” Frame says, is the record “I wanted to make for a decade,” but she admits she’s already thinking about the next one. And while it may be dangerous to conflate song and songwriter — especially since the songwriter does not “put too much of myself into my songs, where it comes from I don’t know,” — it’s hard to resist when you have lyrics like this, from “Don’t Play With Guns,” which seems to sum up where she’s at: “When I leave I don’t look back. I’ve got a long, long way to go, I might as well just enjoy the ride.”


1 comment:

  1. This story originally ran in the November print edition of The Noise.