Let's face the smoking mirror, shall we? Memphis hasn't exactly been stuffing our ears and eyes with interesting out-of-town acts over the past few months. Quite frankly, the concert scene has been grossly unimpressive for a city this size. But now, to put a close to our stretch of suffocating boredom, comes an act that has no equal in the world of music --the infamous indie-rock duo the Frogs, who will make their Memphis debut Saturday, January 26th, at the Map Room.
Though regarded by some as a novelty act, drummer Dennis Flemion and guitarist/principle songwriter Jimmy Flemion are far from a joke act along the lines of Ween; there are no stoner/frat-boy hijinks to be found in the Frogs' oeuvre. Rather, the Frogs tread a sonic and lyrical landscape that celebrates confusion, wonderment, subversion, and, to many, a total offensiveness that spares very few sacred cows.
The legacy began almost 22 years ago in Milwaukee, where the "brothers" were just breaching the age of 20 and performing locally as a duo. Jimmy started wearing a six-foot pair of angel wings onstage (and still does to this day), and the Frogs delved into a home-taping habit that has since produced a wealth of unreleased material. They were also wearing full-body bunny rabbit outfits when current cause cÇläbres the Moldy Peaches were nothing but a toddler/babysitter combo.
The year 1988 saw the release of their debut, The Frogs -- a nice little collection of cabaret pop songs (rereleased in 1999 on Jim O'Rourke's Moikai label) that did very little to prepare listeners for the chaos that loomed just around the corner. In 1989, Gerard Cosloy was employed by Homestead Records and was about a year away from the masterstroke of co-launching Matador Records. Several of the Frogs' homespun numbers fell into his lap and Homestead was somehow persuaded to fund the Frogs' second full-length, It's Only Right and Natural. (For a mainstream reference point, the "that was a good drum break" line from Beck's "Where It's At" was sampled from the record's "I Don't Care If You Disrespect Me [So Long As You Love Me].")
Proclaiming the brothers as the "World's Only Gay Supremacist Duo" and stacked to the gills with graphic homosexual ("Someone's Pinning Me To the Ground") and religious ("God is Gay") content, it's safe to say that It's Only Right and Natural was a gasp-inducing enigma in indie rock at the time. To be hilariously over-the-top was one thing, but the Frogs had truly begun their career of professional button-pushing when it leaked that the duo were probably not gay. But any controversy was also mitigated by one unavoidable detail that gave the band credibility: The music is mostly spot-on gorgeous. Clear worshipers at the pre-glam altars of both Marc Bolan (T. Rex) and David Bowie (his '60s recordings), the band made fractured psychedelic folk niceties out of the otherwise loaded material.
Sitting on the cusp of cult status, the Frogs then attempted career suicide by trying to shop the somewhat notorious Racially Yours album to a slew of uninterested labels. This album would eventually undergo official release in 2000 on Chicago's Four Alarm Records -- seven years after it was recorded. Rumors, underground tape-trading, and Napster effectively made Racially Yours the low-key answer to Prince's Black Album, and, like that album, it's not nearly as incendiary as the hype made it out to be. The album performs a satirical slice 'n' dice on race issues from several viewpoints and is not terribly racist upon close examination -- as long as you are not examining the cover art (Dennis Frog in blackface).
Then the band hit a streak of better luck. The good grace of Gerard Cosloy resulted in Matador releasing two singles ("Adam and Steve" and "Here Comes Santa's Pussy") and a full-length LP/CD (My Daughter, The Broad) between 1994 and 1996. My Daughter, The Broad pretty much follows the musical blueprint laid out by It's Only Right and Natural but sheds the pro-gay theme for a pansexual attack on well you name it: Jerry Lewis, the elderly, children -- no one is safe. Tom Green devolves quickly into base shock art next to a riotous sucker-punch like My Daughter, The Broad.
At this point, the band's one-of-a-kind story ceases to make sense altogether. Kurt Cobain had been name-dropping the Frogs for years before his demise, and this is not too surprising, given his penchant for advertising his obscure taste whenever offered the chance. Nor was flirting with the underground an uncommon practice among members of the Alternative Nation; it makes you look cool and versed beyond what your surroundings offer. The Frogs have never had any bones about their desire to become famous, and for a while in the mid-to-late '90s there were a handful of big names taking this task to heart. Pearl Jam, the Smashing Pumpkins, ex-Breeder Kelley Deal, and even Skid Row frontman Sebastian Bach are all players in the Frogs story.
Pearl Jam had the Frogs cover their "Rearviewmirror" on the flipside of the "Immortality" single, then the Frogs popped up on the B-side of the Smashing Pumpkins' "Tonight, Tonight" single. Billy Corgan et al. then took the brothers on the road, a scenario that commonly found both bands on stage together. Mercury Records gave the Smashing Pumpkins a vanity label in 1997 called Scratchie, which quickly became the Frogs' on-and-off home. Produced by Corgan (under the nom de plume "Johnny Goat"), the Frogs released the Starjob EP on Scratchie. A drastic departure from the pared-down approach common to other Frogs releases, Starjob is a robustly produced record that plays out the rise and fall of a rock star.
Now enter Bach, a close friend of Jimmy Flemion's and a reputed stage presence when the Frogs play the New York area. Jimmy and Sebastian formed a supergroup called the Last Hard Men with Kelley Deal and Smashing Pumpkins drummer Jimmy Chamberlain, and that was the band who covered Alice Cooper's "School's Out" for the Scream soundtrack. (I am not making any of this up.) When this concoction dissolved, Jimmy became a member of the Sebastian Bach and Friends live band and can be heard shredding axe on "Bring 'em Bach Alive," a live document (with three Frogs compositions) released in 1999 on Atlantic Records.
The Frogs stayed active despite Jimmy's extracurricular activities, releasing Bananimals in 1999 on Four Alarm and last year's Hopscotch Lollipop Sunday Surprise on Scratchie. The former revisits the signature fried-folk ponderings of yore, adding piano ballads and a little rock to the requisitely blue song topics ("Golden Showers," "I'm Back To Women"). Hopscotch takes T. Rex's Tanx and a few Pulp records into the Flemion factory and emerges triumphantly beaming with pop beauty. Plus, aside from a few moments ("Nipple Clamps," "Fuck Off"), it's a relatively good-natured outing.
The Frogs have toured almost every year of their two-decade existence and have perfected a purportedly brilliant show. They are currently a three-piece live unit that covers every corner of their exhausting career in acoustic and electric variations, and frontline reports claim that a patron-baiting Dennis Frog commonly encourages audience participation. Enjoy.
with VPN and the Oscars
The Map Room
Saturday, January 26th