Album Report: “Waterfowl” by Frankie Valet

Maybe it was the unwavering cheer of friends that kept Frankie going through the internal complications that defined their recent story. It seems like certain lineup changes spawned a sort of transition period for the band, notably the addition of Alison Setili on vocals and bass and the departure of drummer Matt Sullentrup. Their 2018 releases were followed by a puzzling lull of time. Frankie was either dead or biding for a new attack– their frequency in South City stages suggested the latter.

“Waterfowl” (It Takes Time, 2020) is Frankie Valet’s latest effort, a mixed bag of midwest emo influenced alternative rock that kept fans on their toes as it prepared to launch. It was produced by the band and their usual engineer Peter Flynn. The album release was preceded by a wave of promotional singles and their efforts saw them featured on Bandcamp and other websites. People couldn’t help but look their way; their sudden word of mouth presence turned a lot of heads and set them up for a very successful release and reception.

Upon listening to this album I struggled with how to explain what I absorbed. I tend to break down albums in different categories, attempting to address individual strengths and problems in every department. With “Waterfowl” everything I perceive seems to be coming from the same places, for good or bad. 

Frankie Valet is a triple fronted band: Ingram Tolish holds the fort down from the drum set while Felix Nelson (guitar), Alison Setili (bass) and Jack Elliot-Higgins (guitar) share vocal duties and trade off leads in different songs. Their vocal personalities contrast starkly: Felix approaches the mic with a traditionalist emo timbre that swells and withers in intensity, Alison opts for a subtler and more controlled whisper heavily reliant on slowly developing melody, and Jack’s baritone combined with his motif based melodic ideas almost feels fanfare-esque and old-timey. I eat up acts with multiple front people, and although the mind gravitates towards picking favorites the best often benefit from the back and forth to keep audiences wondering what’s next.

I will go ahead and admit right now that even though every vocalist has shining moments in this release, their compared consistence gets a little complicated. The influence of the vocal performance is so that it seems like often even the mix and arrangement are compromised by who is singing. The album opens with “Nakid”, and Felix’s vocals on the first verse feels just fine until Alison breaks in for the second. Suddenly the guitars turn elegant and complementary to replace the lazy strums, the bass resounds with confidence thanks to the newly opened texture, and her singing paired with swelling harmonies blows the first iteration of this verse out of the water. Even the production sounds cleaner and more in place, as if I had switched songs but it was still the same one somehow. Although an argument could be made for a development in composition being the culprit, the difference in quality is so dramatic that I feel like something else was at play.

Perhaps it’s an issue of blend or mix, but more often than not Alison’s vocal spotlights feel more polished both in production and in composition than those of Felix or Jack. The quasi-title track “Water Foul” further pushes the trope. Although the verse melody doesn’t knock me out, the production value during these quiet parts is strong and full of style. Alison’s voice sounds clean as a whistle and small swells tie the blend up in pleasant wrapper. However, the entrancing effect of the mix is lost once the band kicks into overdrive and Jack takes over the microphone. Suddenly the voice and the band turn muddy, the drum sound deteriorates immensely and I once again feel like someone played a different song (or even a different band) on the speakers without me realizing. Not too deep into the runtime the question of what had the most attention paid to becomes apparent.

In my ears this issue permeates the whole track list. Even exceptions to it are exceptions simply because they aren’t affected as much by it, not because they are impervious. I wouldn’t say this is due to their vocal personalities alone, but rather because of a lack of attention to how the song, the mix or the blend would respond to each timbre. It also doesn’t help that each vocal shift comes with a complete overhaul of the stylistic intention of the band. Admittedly this doesn’t completely detract from my enjoyment of the album, but I do find myself scratching my head when singers switch and my notion of the album, the band and even the song disappears with the change.

One important exception to this gripe is what happens when the singers work together, whether it is for simple harmony or to further the composition. Although the vocal levels between Jack and Felix are uncomfortably disparate between verse and chorus on the high octane “Engulfed” single, Jack’s melody is fun in a refreshingly traditional way and the addition of Felix’s octave above Jack on the second half of the verse adds a lot of depth and imprints it in the listener’s mind with ease. I was initially unimpressed with the lack of tightness of the performance, but multiple listens turned me around to appreciate the loose touch of the drums dancing with the adrenaline of the high tempo– it feels at points like the mix is about to drive off a cliff. Felix’s final refrain of “I tried” is a bit cliché, sure, but its short length helps wrap the song up and send it to its end without unnecessary idling.

“Engulfed” is not the only example of this group vocal redemption either. I already talked about the second verse in “Nakid” and its haunting harmonies, the chorus in “Wilt” also thrives in tactful octave singing, and even the final section of the hit or miss “You Found Me Out” benefits greatly from the vocal interplay. These are just a few examples of the added attention to voice harmonies paying off handsomely. You could call it an unintentional statement against individual ego, but it seems to me like when group vocal work was addressed the whole song and arrangement were able to reap a more favorable outcome than when not.

My general problem is that I feel confused. Felix-fronted “Theo” starts to present a riff only to suddenly drop down to an almost comical acoustic section where the crystal clear guitar and banjo struggle in contrast with phone recording quality vocals. The song eventually moves onto the same sound as the intro, introducing very little to justify the awkward drop. Moments later Alison’s “Soft Skin” constructs a special narrative full of surprises, with beautifully produced drums that pound along with the bass to support a strong melody and guitar swells– it even sports a gargantuan lead in the middle to send the thing off into the outro in an absolute blast. The back and forth between attention to detail and lukewarm idea flinging is dizzying and results in very inconsistent outcomes.

The second half of the album is especially subject to this problem of inconsistency. The melodies in “Wilt” are charming and I could even take home the brass arrangements in the chorus, but the following entrance of the obnoxiously trad emo “Our Apartment” makes me recoil and wonder where I am. My confusion only grows when Frankie switches into synthpop for “Try Not To Think”, a song that is charming enough, but as it sits in the track order it leaves me dumbfounded and figuring out what the band is trying to do– not a new feeling, but one that grows quickly. Most of the material on this second half feels incomplete, incongruent or simply lackluster, especially when put next to the first half of the album. The production also lacks in comparison somehow, giving most of the material the taste of an afterthought.

“Waterfowl” has a lot of special moments and ideas within, but when you put them all together it’s clear that a lot more thought could have been put to the overarching theme of what Frankie Valet is supposed to be. This pitfall is hard to avoid when juggling three front people; there’s always a possibility of each singer portraying a personality so unique that each new song (or even section) sounds like a different band altogether. There is no fault in embracing this ever-shifting approach, but without care the resulting track list could end up so off putting that the personalities die away in the confusion. I think the convoluted outcome of this album is consistent with Frankie Valet’s history and might have suffered due to it– I could even buy it being a place to let go of a slew of songs written over the years to open up space for something more concise. With this in mind I eagerly await to see what they’ll do in the future with their present momentum and their growing understanding of who they are as a band.

Listen to “Waterfowl” via Bandcamp down below:

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