It can be an unexpected pleasure when someone comes along that makes you to reevaluate a firmly-held opinion. So it was when I stumbled upon Valvoline and Vaseline, an excellent 4-song tribute to The Frogs by Chicago’s prolific Book-Burners.
From my limited exposure, I was never much of a fan of The Frogs, the Milwaukee band headed by brothers Jimmy and Dennis Flemion. I found the weirdness of their songs off-putting and the live show a bit schticky — once seeing Jimmy Flemion flailing around the floor of the Empty Bottle in broken batwings. They reminded me of Ween or Zappa. I couldn’t tell if the gay theme running through some of their songs was making fun or just being risqué, but I didn’t feel like giving them the time to find out.
Yet, re-imagined by The Book Burners, I found at least these four Frogs songs to be everything I love about great rock music. The first three (These Are The Finest Queen Boys [I’ve Ever Seen], Men [Come On Men] and Homos) are catchy as all hell and pack a ton of hooks combined with unsettling subject matter into each two-minute-plus song.
In the wrong hands, these songs might come off jokey. But the un-ironic delivery and solid musicianship offer a sincere tribute to a band that served as a profound influence.
Valvoline and Vaseline closes with Which One of You Gave My Daughter The Dope? — a chilling story told from the perspective of a father who has lost his daughter to a drug overdose. The sparse arrangement of reverb guitar and voice wring out every ounce of emotion ranging from terror to anger to melancholy and ennui as the father has gathered friends of his deceased daughter to his home under the pretense of commiseration. “I hope your stay here is pleasant. Your departure won’t.”
The father calmly interrogates the girls he has gathered, only once showing the depth of his anger as he says, “Now I need to know, which one of you motherfucking assholes gave my daughter the dope. Make peace with yourself.” His contempt for them is jarring. He asks, “Why don’t you ask me what it’s like to lose a 10-year-old daughter? Why don’t you ask me what it’s like to watch my soul leave my body?” But ultimately he concludes with, “You bore me.”
The simple, guitar phrase repeated throughout underscore the tension and drama in this song that features no heroes, only victims. It is an unsettling ear worm.
The Book-Burners frontman Bradley Weissenberger summed up the Frogs best when he recently wrote: “They are beautiful, awesome, weird, confusing, funny, profane, and sweet. The Frogs are geniuses.”
The Book-Burners recorded no less than 35 songs in 2012, all of which are available for free through their Bandcamp page. It is an eclectic collection that showcases the band’s growth. From acoustic lo-fi to edgy aluminum beardrock with a splash of indie power pop, it is a real pleasure to follow the progression of the band in the course of a year.