The latest Frankie Cosmos record Next Thing (out now via Bayonet Records) is another step away from the bedroom – and off of Bandcamp – for F-C guitarist, voice, and mastermind Greta Kline, but as with 2014’s excellent Zentropy, and last year’s Fit Me In EP, her songwriting retains the effortless confessional intimacy that makes her one of twee-pop’s new luminaries.
For all the snickering condescension thrown twee’s way by fans of more “serious” indie music, it’s proven remarkably resilient, which isn’t terribly surprising. Some of twee’s virtues like its lo-fi bravado and its sentimental sincerity will have enduring appeal as long as there’s slick, emotionally trite music with which to compare it (so basically… always).
The more important reason for twee’s resilience is the way a great artist can make it his or her own; after all, there’s no one right way to make earnest pop music. It’s in this sense that Frankie Cosmos/Greta Kline shines. Next Thing is a fully developed statement that gestures toward the quirk’n’charm of the indie-pop tradition but could only have come from Kline.
Her remarkable gift is her ability to lyrically blend the specific with the universal. Kline’s words and melodies draw you into her world, referring to her friends by name or describing tour minutiae, while in the same moment offering cutting insights or profound, even breathtaking, observations that transcend both
her unassuming vocal delivery and the music’s hooky appeal (that the “Frank” in Frankie Cosmos comes from poet Frank O’Hara basically makes a ton of sense).
Take the song “Embody.” As with a few other tunes on the record, Kline reaches back into her vast self-released catalogue (fans know she’s a Bandcamp superstar with a prolific output that includes over 45 releases as of writing), and retools what was originally a delightful, bedroom-style solo tune (from Affirms Glinting) into something more subtly elegant.
Listen: “Next Thing” – Frankie Cosmos
Sound-wise, the reworked track is very fundamental: mostly clean guitar, understated, atmospheric keyboard, pulsing bass, and unflashy drums (the last three courtesy of Eskimeaux’s Gabrielle Smith, David Maine, and Porches’ Aaron Maine respectively). The band’s music jaunts forward and the chord changes feel intuitive. Kline’s mellifluous voice glides over top with occasional harmonies from Smith, and she sings in the first verse:
Everybody understands me
But I wish nobody understood me
So you could be
The one who did
All the grace and lightness
It’s not entirely clear to whom the words are addressed (a significant other or a friend maybe) but there’s no doubt that she expresses something complex. The self-deprecating first line about being totally understood offers a funny, playful reversal of the “misunderstood artist” cliché and actually poses that understanding as an obstacle to connection. With her clever use of enjambment (her lyrics demand the tools of poetry analysis) between the fourth and fifth lines, Kline suggests that the someone who can singularly understand and relate to a misunderstood person becomes an embodiment of “all the grace and lightness,” – a wonderful phrasing.
In a very sincere way, she locates the sublimity in fostering a deeply personal connection with someone. And importantly, she wants that not for her self, but for the individual to whom she sings, which both expresses selfless concern – wishing another the chance to manifest sublime grace and lightness is an uncommon but tremendous way to say you care – and reveals a tinge of insecurity about being unable to provide that opportunity.
But Kline ends the song on a hopeful note, singing:
Florist signs are everywhere
Emily is in the air
We’ll embody all the grace and lightness
Here, she name-checks Florist’s Emily Sprague and Eskimeaux’s Gabrielle Smith and raises the world of the professional musician with flyers and touring, but at bottom her sentiment is universal: being with friends and doing what you love is transcendent.
What could have been a banal statement about loneliness or being an outcast is heightened into a more sophisticated reflection on the grace of which quotidian human relationships are capable but sometimes fail to achieve. At first glance, the lyrics scan as simple and Kline delivers them almost nonchalantly, as if the words’ relationship to her inviting melody is inevitable. But the more one considers them, the more apparent their depth becomes.
Watch: “Outside with the Cuties” – Frankie Cosmos
As “Embody” hints, dedicated fans can spend plenty of time following up on the album’s name-drops, piecing together who Kline’s singing about or which bands she’s referencing. For instance, on the standout track “Sinister” she sings about an “Arthur,” whose implacable goodness she can’t always imitate. This is a reference to cult musician Arthur Russell, whom she learned about from the late, great band Krill, who name-check Russell in their song “Solitaire,” which Kline covered back in 2013.
Listen: “Sinister” – Frankie Cosmos
However, while those threads are definitely interesting for a certain kind of fan (like this author), her music works sonically and emotionally without necessitating obsessive sleuthing (even though any excuse to bring up Krill is a good one). Kline’s songs stand on their own as thoughtful, thoroughly enjoyable pieces of pop music, and her lyrics reward whatever depth at which a particular listener considers them.
Watch: “Frankie Cosmos Give Concert in Smallest Concert Venue during SXSW”
For example, the song “On the Lips,” is a total earworm – pure pop gold – about a missed chance at an amorous connection with a stranger spotted on the subway. Its verses boast the kind of solid three-chord progression that rock music is built on, and then at the chorus, the guitar and keys drop out for the hook.
A descending bass-line throbs above the pop of a snare-drum hitting the beat, and Kline’s voice is foregrounded. Conveying a mix of fragility and wistful what-if, she sings:
Where would I kiss ya
If I could kiss ya?
Why would I kiss ya
If I could kiss ya?
Listen: “On the Lips” – Frankie Cosmos
Pretty straightforward, and, on the surface, hardly existentially loaded – just a sweet, musing pop song. But at the same time, asking “why?” and suggesting regret, or at least considering having made different choices, are thematically serious and a song about an unseized opportunity opens up toward more weighty considerations.
Kline sings in a verse:
I’m sorry I’m hi let’s go
Sometimes I cry ‘cause I know
I’ll never have all the answers
Separated by a subway transfer
Per usual, her words are deceptively simple. She imagines having approached her romantic could’ve-been, and the first line’s run-on effects a sort of nervous stammer, letting the insecurity that prevented her from actually doing so creep into her fantasy. And couched quickly in the middle of the story of separation by subway transfer is an even more profound admission of vulnerability: an acknowledgement of the everyday melancholy in never being able to know what could have been, in never having “all the answers” in life.
But you can just take it as super-catchy song too.
Watch: “Is It Possible / Sleep Song” – Frankie Cosmos
Over and over again, the tracks on Next Thing work in similar ways, drawing listeners in with uncomplicated charm and then complicating things just a little bit, but always in an understated way. Musically, Frankie Cosmos can adopt twee’s happy-go-lucky pose and then with a word or two suggest depths of darker emotion. Kline engages twee’s well-known sentimentality with her lyrics but delivers the words almost matter-of-factly, hinting at a type of self-awareness that “heart-on-her-sleeve” doesn’t quite capture.
And it’s Kline’s and her band’s mastery of those different tensions that makes Next Thing such a good record.
The remarkable thing about her career, and that of any prolific young artist in the age of the internet, is that, in a sense, it’s all happened in public. Kline’s Bandcamp page is not just an archive of her back-catalogue, but it preserves and retells the story of her artistic development, of her finding her voice and songwriting chops. You can listen in order and hear it all unfold.
Next Thing is part of the moment in that story when the music’s production quality intersects in just the right way with the writing and arranging skills Kline has been honing. On the new record, Kline further develops her sound and reinforces a sense of continuity between her new music and her past work – both of which help solidify her position as one of indie-pop’s most vital new voices.
Next Thing – Frankie Cosmos
Frankie Cosmos Tour
Fri-Apr-24 – WALTHAM, MA @ Brandeis, University – Chums Coffeehouse
Wed-May-27 – PHILADELPHIA, PA @ PhilaMoCA (WITH PORCHES!)
Thu-May-28 – CLEVELAND, OH @ Mahall’s (WITH PORCHES!)
Sat-May-30 – CHICAGO, IL @ Beat Kitchen
Sun-May-31 – MADISON, WI @ The Frequency (WITH PORCHES!)
Mon-Jun-01 – FORT WAYNE, IN @ The Tiger Room at CS3 (WITH PORCHES!)
Tue-Jun-02 – DETROIT, MI @ PJ’s Lager House (WITH PORCHES!)
Wed-Jun-03 – TORONTO, ON @ Smiling Buddha (WITH PORCHES!)
Thu-Jun-04 – MONTREAL, QC @ La Vitrola (WITH PORCHES!)
Fri-Jun-05 – WINOOSKI, VT @ Monkey House (WITH PORCHES!)
Sat-Jun-06 – BOSTON, MA @ Cambridge Elks Lodge (WITH PORCHES!)