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The Frown | Amen

A Men

by Brandon Edmonds / 02.06.2011

There are precedents. A history of inspired female singers taking possession of “male” songs. Let’s see. Aretha Franklin spiritualized the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” back in 1967 and elevated a frustrated lads blue balls anthem into a State of the Nation civil-rights address (to dance to). Sinead O’Connor’s everlasting 1990 version of “Nothing Compares 2 U” turns Prince’s slick original into a sliding scale of break-up emotions, hurt, hope, rage; a young woman’s sorrowing, dazed incredulity as she gets her (shorn) head around unspeakable loss. Wounded by love. Patti Smith inhabits and transforms Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” into a meticulous, uncanny frontier séance – you feel yourself leaning in closer as her redemptive ashen supple voice passes, like country-rock necromancy, from itself into Cobain’s, and back again.

And there are still greater highs. Chan Marshall, who is Cat Power, has been unpicking popular songs (Oasis’ “Wonderwall” / Ceelo’s “Crazy”) and flooding them with her inside voice, its lush Chet Baker sadness, for decades now. She may well be the millennial Lena Horne. Phil Phillips’ suave, yearning 1959 smash hit “The Sea of Love” becomes a slower, chiming, near-amateur rendering in her hands, a bare confession of devotion, sincere and never twee, the closest we come to post-modern spirituality. It’s so strong it even survived the Juno soundtrack.

There was a South African instance certainly worthy of this company. Only one until now. In 1991 Miriam Makeba, along with her friend and “sister”, Nina Simone, possessor of the first and last voice you ever need to hear, covered Bob Dylan’s “I Shall be Released”. With Mandela rumoured to be freed, the song’s refrain “Any day now, any day now I shall be released” was especially powerful and the local version mines the song’s elevated choral possibilities. Makeba, intimidated by Dylan’s star-power, decided, “I can try to sing it my way, with my own little accent.”

Which brings us, finally, to The Frown. A fashion-forward Joburg duo melding electronica with trad pop structures, they have a new 5-track EP out called A Men. Lead singer Eve Rakow, like Miriam, certainly has her “own little accent”. She hits consonants like foreigners do in spy movies. It was a cloying, distracting affectation during her tenure with The Frown Family Karavan – a dead entity that conjured a sort of antique fairy-tale folk listenable with several pinches of salt – but this EP reveals a band doing so many different things, well, you can forgive just about anything.

She’s a player, a modernist, a performer who can’t wait to translate the sprawling immediacy of her sensations into art. And yet it’s not all about Eve anymore. This is a real band. The music is faultless, replete. Tasteful atmospherics, immaculate programming, sly borrowing and, at last, the forswearing of self-conscious hipster coterie-servicing in exchange for grace, power, conviction and something we may as well call emotion. This is half-dazed dance music for head-scratchers. Calm, calculated headphone pop so in command of its own reach, references and goals tears happen at the deft beauty of it all. I’m overwhelmed.

The Frown

“Robyn” has the sweet spry glory of The Postal Service’s seminal Such Great Heights. Run through Roxy Music’s luxe early Eno sophistication. Again it’s the rightness of the behind the boards choices. The elegant production value, all done in London, apparently. Quality and skill makes everything feel lasting and fresh. There’s a spring-water clarity to the sound. I could live without “Boo Who” (all accent and fable) and “No Breath” (which wishes it was The Knife). “This is How the World Ends (TIHTWE)” showcases Eve’s rapturous range, and she ends up sounding like St.Vincent kicking back with How to Dress Well. Very good things.

But who’re we kidding? This EP will go down in history as the original glimpse of a song that justifies the endless pre-amble above: The Frown’s cover version of N.E.R.D.’s “Rock Star”. The Neptunes’ (Pharrel and Chad) standard crunchy template of “nervy danceable rap-rock electro-funk hybridity” – which saw them justly tagged Producer of the Decade by Billboard – is summarily set aside. The Frown opens the cover really stark with isolated piano chords dripping like stalactites. No guitar samples or drum loops. None of the abrasive frat-rage energy bursts of the original here. There’s a limpid calm to the aural palette throughout the EP. An inhibition at once cerebral and hot.

The original song is about updating cultural expectations in light of Web 2.0. Short, skinny, black Pharrell tells us he’s a rock star. But a hunky Kings of Leon Followill brother he ain’t. It’s a shout out to geeks, the marginal, the behind the scenes kids, as work changes into immaterial labour, and commercial culture is increasingly driven by hobbyists, awkward teenage girls and asocial fan boys. Nerd.

Pharrel taunts posers, jocks, the old guard, whoever. “Fuckin’ posers / It’s almost over now.” His faux gangsta posturing is more laughable than lock up your daughters: “You can’t be me / I’m a rock star / I’m rhyming on the top of a cop car”. But the song never becomes anthemic. The times are too confused for that. Victory is too confusing because nothing feels like freedom. Rakow metabolizes that frustration and turns it into a burned out torch song flinching at an online generation desperate for definition: “You think the way you lives okay / you think posing will save the day…you can’t be me.” You can’t be me she sings repeatedly. I’m a rock star.

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RESPONSES (56)
  1. the informer says:

    The Frown are a group we can all be proud of.

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  2. TheGrizzlyLumberjack says:

    Spot on. No one can deny that is a good ep. Agreed, i could do without Boowho, just reminds me too much of Portishead. Good in it’s own right, but doesn’t add anything important. Everything else is perfect. Very well written review.

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  3. Tim says:

    I love The Frown so hard.

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  4. kaylin says:

    The frown are so synthetic. Eve is far from genuine, the entire band is a rip off of lark. So maybe they should do something original or fuck off

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  5. seven day analyst says:

    Good article, well written. But too bad the frown suck. I agree with kaylin, their just a lark rip off.

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  6. KAK says:

    This band needs to go away

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  7. Anna says:

    The Frown are amazing!

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  8. the sigh says:

    why no frown samples or videos embedded int he article?

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  9. Tim says:

    Here is a link to a blog that offers “Rockstar” for free download….
    http://www.covermesongs.com/2011/05/quickies-emilie-simon-the-frown-brad-laner-aidan-moffit-and-bill-wells-vasco-de-gama.html

    And here is a link to Amen’s listing on itunes… its very cheap.
    http://www.covermesongs.com/2011/05/quickies-emilie-simon-the-frown-brad-laner-aidan-moffit-and-bill-wells-vasco-de-gama.html

    You can buy a physical copy online from the lovely folks at Wolves, too:
    http://shop.wolves.co.za/?cat=17

    For those that enjoy The Frown, thank you times a million for the support. For those that don’t, well I guess you can’t please everyone, and with music like ours, it wasn’t gonna happen anyway 😉

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  10. Tim says:

    oh yes, and just so its clear – the production, writing and recording of the album was all done here in Joburg, and it was mixed and mastered in London by our amazingly talented friend Chris Brink at Audiofury. Thanks Chris!

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  11. Alex Burgess says:

    Eve’s vocals are as haunting as a cuckoo clock and she is about as genuine as a R100 rolex. But otherwise brilliant

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  12. Lee says:

    Love the frown!

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  13. @the sigh says:

    because then everyone would see that behind brandon’s painfully rosy punt, lies boring crap.

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  14. Anonymous says:

    good article except for the part where Eve Rakow is likened to Miriam Makeba/Nina Simone/Patti Smith. That’s going a bit too far.

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  15. humbug says:

    Eve’s just a lady gaga ripoff.
    nothing we haven’t seen before.

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  16. jumanji says:

    @Tim – can’t believe you’re backing up your own band.

    are you the only fan?

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  17. Sarah_j_fell says:

    Don’t be such haters people.

    Nice article. The music’s not at all bad either. Digging the Rockstar cover. This reminds me of something else South African though, but not Lark. Anyone know?

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  18. Sarah_j_fell says:

    Actually it is Lark. The way she enunciates her words.

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  19. Tim (First comment) says:

    I’m a different Tim, I can make music, or grow a beard 🙁

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  20. Tim (First comment) says:

    *can’t

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  21. Shirley says:

    Nina Simone makes me cry like a baby; I doubt I’m getting that from this lot

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  22. Isis Mongoose says:

    frown family brightened a few cape town evenings for me. they actually had a whole bunch of talent which really made them stick out. been kinda lonely since they left. glad they finally released something. i’d be interested to see if they’re anywhere near smith or simone yet. admit you’re secretly in love with eve brandy! just admit it!

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  23. Tim apter (the frown) says:

    Um yeah jumanji, that would be a bit sad… There is more than one Tim on the Internet….

    In my as honest as possible opinion, I think you guys are getting too caught up in the eve thing… She’s a very charismatic person, but it’s starting to annoy that every comment starts with “eve is”. I’m totally open to bad feedback, but are you guys attacking a person, or the music? Have you listened to the ep? I don’t want you to like it, I’m just curious… Mahala feels like an ugly little popularity cult sometimea.

    I don’t make or share music because it’s my livelihood… I just love making music. You’re 100 percent entitled to hate it, compare it, love it, slate it – here’s the thing: Its mine (ours), and i write it because I love it, nothin else…

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  24. Nina Lover. says:

    My mother brought me up on Nina Simone.
    I adore her.
    I can’t say that eve’s voice has moved me just as much.

    actually.
    it hasn’t moved me at all.

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  25. Mark says:

    Lark lark lark lark

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  26. carl says:

    @Tim apter… I don’t like the frown at all, I think its abit too fake and the music doesn’t seem to be coming from the heart. But I respect the fact you’re doing it. I don’t think people are hating on eve as a person, but as the face of the frown. If she changed her approach and moved away from copying Bjork, inge beckmann and lady gaga maybe people would like it and they would look at, not only her, but the band differently. I listened to the ep and it wasn’t different or special. It won’t go down in history and it won’t win any big award, it will just fade away soon. So maybe you guys should change up soon and maybe people who have heard of lark might like you. Mahala isn’t a little popularity cult, if they were you would be getting amazing praise but unfortunately these are real people who don’t follow popular thought, they actually listen so see this as a wake up call. To me the frown, at the moment, have not got a lot of potential when it comes to reaching proper music listeners. You might reach pretentious indie kids but real music listeners won’t ever like you. But dude I’m not trying to push you down, double adapter is going well. You guys have an crazy live show and I saw your doc, it was really cool. But just be abit more subtle because it can just be pointless noise sometimes, and tell dan to get more ideas for his visuals, at the moment its just ‘DOUBLE ADAPTER’ being shot from the screen in two colours rather than a proper visual show. But I guess when you’re in a scene where everyone is drunk you don’t need artistry.

    PEACE

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  27. Jerry says:

    The Frown = SUCK ASS BAND

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  28. leslie101 says:

    Its really ironic, N’E’R’D’s “RockStar” has a line that goes “Just be yourself don’t ask us why”. Really really ironic

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  29. Isis Mongoose says:

    @Jerry
    You sound like a discerning and sophisticated lister… why not go down to musica and get yourself some Antwoord, Ace of Base and 2Unlimited CDs?

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  30. the sigh says:

    “but real music listeners won’t ever like you”.

    No that’s not the least bit arrogant Carl , is it? Maybe if you stopped seeing the consumption of art in such absolute terms, you may also increase your capacity for subtlety.

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  31. Jaya says:

    I think The Frown is cool but maybe @Tim should focus more of his energy on them and less on Double Adapter. Dan is really letting Double Adapter down and could he be any more of an asshole in interviews – compensating for not having any talent I guess. Fist kisses

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  32. gosh says:

    love this EP, i dont think its pretentious at all – money well spent… at least you guys are comparing eve to really awesome people in the music world, and she isnt bland and boring like so many other singers in sa.

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  33. Tim A says:

    hmmm, perhaps i shouldn’t have opened my big fat mouth 🙂

    @Carl, gotta say man, i disagree with every single point you make, especially that the music isn’t coming from the heart… with respect, your comment about “real music listeners” is more pretentious than the frown could ever be. Thanks for taking the time to write, but I’m gonna go ahead and ignore everything you’ve said.

    As for everyone else, thanks for the feedback. Yeah, except Jerry. He can go fuck himself.

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  34. Roxy says:

    It’s amazing how people who leave shitty comments don’t use their real names.

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  35. Niall Bingham says:

    I’m a visual artist, over the years I have learnt that criticism, if accepted in a mature way, can be very useful in the process of getting better. If you are a “real music listener” [sic], then perhaps you could offer some constructive criticism. The Frown are serious about making their mark, and they are a very new band, maybe it would be a little more generous of you as a “proper music listener”[sic] to support the industry by offering genuinely useful criticism. For the other haters I pose this challenge: perhaps if we can replace the really hurtful stuff, with dialogue that contains substance, maybe even supportive language, then we may be able to agree on a few things. I ask you all to give The Frown a chance because they deserve it.

    Niall.

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  36. Roxy says:

    A men

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  37. Roger Young says:

    @Niall

    The last band attracted this much vitriol on these here comment boards was Die Antwoord.

    I don’t think The Frown is doing anything wrong.

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  38. Gia says:

    music covers. copied image. fake accent.
    ?????

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  39. Bleh says:

    Well, If you don’t mind me pointing out Brandon, who yes, writes wonderfully… You do, I’m not being sarcastic. And yes, the frown aren’t doing anything wrong, or anything that’ll throw them in prison at least. But. And here it is, are you insinuating that die Antwoord are? Just whilst we’re in the open about south African music and talent. Yet, lemme point out that the positive to negative feedback ratio is pathetically low. Now, being neutral and actually on neither hate nor love side of the frown I must say, you have some honest people out there who genuinely dislike the band. And yes, this is a board to comment on the article and not the subject, but with a bulk of such strong opinions being thrown out here it is, sadly, happily – call It what you will – an indication that people aren’t liking the frown as much as you say/think they should be. So maybe, test the waters first before you throw around iconic music figures like Nina Simone, patti smith and Miriam makeba.
    You don’t work for Rolling Stone afterall.

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  40. claudi says:

    The Frown are one of the most talented bands at the mo! to the maxxxx!!I heart Evey and The Frown 🙂

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  41. brandon says:

    I’m not sure what you mean by “test the waters”? I’m saying Eve’s ‘possession’ of the song by NERD is as remarkable in its way as the others I cite. Especially in a South African context. She finds something in the song that unmakes and expands it simultaneously. This is impressive to me.

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  42. Isis Mongoose says:

    @gia
    good point gia. notably, as something of a frown family fan i can’t disagree with you. frown are still finding their feet. dylan started off as a gutherie cover, no more. the stones with muddy waters. i think brandy is, with all journalistic licence, seeing some kinda future in what they’re doing now. a few people have pointed to the antwoord article from a few months ago. they’re notable precisely because that they just play what everybody wants to hear them play and dress it up as if it was original. where eve probably doesn’t know who violeta para or lhasa de sela are there’s something in what she’s doing that is original and very bold on the SA music scene. i don’t think she’s anywhere near patti smith, miriam makeba or sinead yet but for for anyone who’s interested in female vocal – she does have something. and it’s good to see that since neversink left there’s still somebody worth looking out for. brandon may not write for rolling stone, but i haven’t read a decent article there in the last 2 months. i’m glad he found somebody worth writing about here.

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  43. gosh says:

    @bleh, i realise this is a bit sad to have done, but your comment about postive/negative got me wondering. so i actually counted. its about 12/12 (some are a smidge vague or not relevant)… seems pretty negative when you read the thread, but people actually seem to be quite polarised about this band in both directions.

    i cant help but wonder if hate is a much better reaction than disinterest… after all, taking the time to post anything is in a way saying that they are worth the time it takes to type a comment. even if it IS “suck ass band” haha.

    Anyway, like i said, i really like their ep, and i’m glad i bought it. quite suprised at the negative comments actually… its so much more common to see a lack of response in SA than a torrent of extremes!

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  44. ryan says:

    I hate eve’s voice. Its so fake

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  45. Anon- says:

    @Ryan: Your mom’s fake.

    @all the haters: You don’t have to love the music – but at least appreciate the vision that Tim and Eve are going for. They are about as innovative as they come, especially with Tim coming from the opposite end of the genre-spectrum, as in Double Adapter.

    This forum is to comment on the article and/or the EP – not to personally critique and criticise the members of The Frown. Eve cannot “change” her voice – nobody cares if you don’t “like” it.

    If you don’t love it, don’t buy it.

    Eve, you’re beautiful.
    Tim, you’re a legend.

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  46. Caroline says:

    Oh for goodness sake, can any of you actually criticize The Frown without your only reason for hating it being Eve? Personally, The Frown is the first band, and yes, I think even more so than Lark, which actually challenges the boundaries of music in South Africa, whether it is hated or loved, it still generates a reaction.
    For me, Tim and Eve have managed to create music that is soulful ingenuity. But that’s just me, and fair enough if you don’t like it, but learn to make a critique with something a little more substantial than “Eve sucks, Eve sucks. Kick Eve, kick Eve”. It’s getting a bit boring… Mahala is getting a bit boring.

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  47. happy brown says:

    Caroline be careful when you speak of pushing the boundaries because that requires you having done some travelling and hearing SA bands from a multitude of spaces, which I’ve realised alot of Mahala readers haven’t. Its only when you have stepped out of your comfort spaces to listen to music that you can speak of pushing boundaries which is my problem with Mahala comments. The comments usually come from sheltered individuals who just hate or love personalities in the bands because they’ve partied with them in Greenside or at Wolves. The Frown can be amazing if pushed, they have what is takes to make people eat their words regarding them being anything like LARK. I do feel that gigging in the same spaces in this country can sap you of the ambition to push your work further into the direction which you would like it to go. I watched them last weekend at Invisible cities and felt that they seemed to not perform up to their worth. Eve is an amazing vocalist and performer and was the only one who engaged the audience. Their cellist Caroline was placed at the back of the stage and she seems to take the same place in their sound, right at the back of it all. I do think they can be pushed and that is why I feel they need this criticism. Die Antwoord have nothing on them, what they are doing is not gimmicky and has a sense of sincerity about it . Their sound is not for everyone apparently, this is what gigging in predominantly obvious spaces can lead you to believe, The Frown need to get out there, play in different spaces and get some match fitness. Great article

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  48. bleep says:

    @ Sarah_j_fell – Remembering Fetish?

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  49. TIm Apter says:

    @Happy Brown – at last some genuine feedback. Thanks!

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  50. callum says:

    @caroline…I think you’re going abit far when you say the frown are pushing boundaries. You guys still strike me as a pretentious electronica band (nothing new). But good luck with everything, hope you get better

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  51. derek says:

    I got to hand it to the frown. After listening to the cover of ‘Rock star’, I appreciate N.E.R.D way more. Request, stop trying to ruin my favourite songs;)

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  52. Chane' says:

    Call me a pretentious indie kid but I love The Frown.

    That will be all.

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  53. Petrus Padda says:

    They’re OK. Keen to see what they deliver next. Judging by their EP I’d say it reminds me WAY TOO MUCH of FEVER RAY. It’s almost a carbon-copy. Comparing Eve to Karin Dreijer Andersson would’ve been far more accurate.

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