When I was growing up, radios were everywhere. The air I breathed as a child was muggy with the tinny pop hits of the eighties, the staticky singalongs of the seventies, and the saccharine psychedelia of the sixties.
You walked down the street, into a shop, a doctor’s waiting room, an office, a taxi and it was there – radio – plugged in and playing loud. At home, it was Classic Gold for my dad – “hits from the 50s, 60s and 70s!” My mum preferred stations that played the latest chart singles of the 1980s, all heavy synths and drum machines.
Back then radio contributed to a kind of collective consciousness; a shared musical experience facilitated by those magical, invisible waves. We were all happy victims of osmosis, passively absorbing decades of hits. It’s why we can still belt out Bonnie Tyler or the Spice Girls; Erasure or Wings; Eurythmics or 4 Non Blondes at 3am.
Even the process of tuning a radio was special. Trying to locate a decent station was a speculative, hopeful process: like a mystic at a seance trying to contact the other side. When the voice came through, the hairs on your neck stood up – a connection had been made.
Nowadays, all that has changed. We have streaming services where we get to choose exactly what we listen to and when – we’ve all plugged in and retreated into our own private worlds to enjoy intimate experiences with the bands and artists we love. Headphones go in and the outside world dissolves. We’re alone. And it’s great. But have we not lost something special? That connection with others, that shared experience?
I say all this because the latest album from Frog reminds of those radio days. Count Bateman manages to capture the melodic purity of 1970s’ AOR so well, along with something of radio’s unique collectivising force. In classic Frog fashion, it also serves up poetic lyrics that navigate America’s myriad guises, full of twists and turns and perfectly rendered detail.
It’s important to point out that Frog has changed since their last release. Drummer Tom White has moved to London, leaving Danny Bateman to write, record & produce this album solo. Bateman has had to wrestle alone with a tape and drum machine as well as his own ideas and insecurities. Thankfully Count Bateman is a resounding success. Old songs that never quite got there for the duo have been worked out and appear here alongside new tracks.
It’s an album full of the kind of melodies and choruses that bring people together, so familiar and gently nostalgic that they hook you in. There’s a Neil Young Heart of Gold feel to the slow-footed acoustic guitar and warm harmonica of RIP to the Empire State Flea Market. Whereas You Know I’m Down is more Harvest Moon, with a deliciously simple rhyme scheme and a wide-eyed, widescreen country yearning for the great wide open.
Elsewhere, we get a healthy dose of perennial radio favourites Fleetwood Mac. The superb Black Friday evokes their perfect yet contradictory encapsulation of naivety and world-weariness. The piano stabs, rhythmical vocal delivery, even the barking dog, build to create a song of joyful urgency: the kind of track I want to sing along to with friends and strangers at 3am.
A lo-fi hazy heat pervades Count Bateman sonically, but the lyrics are razor-sharp. Bateman takes us from macro to micro, from the very idea of America to the City to New Rochelle to a Flea Market to the interior worlds of relationships and finally into his own internal monologues.
Each listen reveals more; adds more colour to the distorted dream sequence. On Borned King historical characters are used as a narrative device to critique the contemporary. It’s packed with striking imagery: silver armour glinting in the noonday sun and screaming villagers in the aisles of grocery stores. Standout track Something We Do showcases Bateman’s pleading falsetto and includes the phrase ‘I fucked up’ – a phrase and theme that pervades Count Bateman. But for all the self-doubt, this is an assertive album. Bateman can do this alone and Frog leap forward once again.
Count Bateman is released by the brilliant Audio Antihero and is available to purchase via Bandcamp.
Read my review of Kind of Blah by Frog over on Gold Flake Paint.