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Until about 1993, when he began to evidence one of the most distinct production aesthetics of the '90s, Mitchell Froom was like a pop- music version of the Hollywood hack, a successful toiler at work in a city where one unsuccessful Hollywood hack, William Faulkner, labored miserably for $300 a week. I cringe quite often as I look down my list of well over 100 records Froom's been a part of--whether on keyboards, clavinet, harp, Moog, theremin, horns, or in the Svengali role of "man behind the board." Keyboards on Rick Springfield's Hard to Hold. Synth on Janet's pre-Control release Dream Street. A composer's credit on a 1981 porno film called Night Dreams. Production credits on the pretentious, late-period Elvis Costello records that discerning shoppers have left in the Cheapo bins for their grandkids to flip past en route to the 1996 Sheryl Crow record on which Froom scored strings. The names sit on the page like plot points to a Tom Robbins novel. Here is a guy who spent the late '80s and early '90s enabling more competent middle-aged rock than all the 12-step programs in the San Fernando Valley combined, on records from Bob Dylan's Down in the Groove to his wife Suzanne Vega's 99.9 F.
Today Froom is the coolest producer in pop. Pushing 40, he epitomizes a rarefied version of rock 'n' roll cool. Dressed in black from head to toe, he looked more the hipster classics professor than the aging rock guy, posed head-in-hand on the sleeve of the masterpiece he sculpted with members of Los Lobos, The Latin Playboys. And his best work--The Latin Playboys, American Music Club's Mercury, Los Lobos' Kiko and Colossal Head, Cibo Matto's Viva La Woman!, Ron Sexsmith's Other Songs, and his just-released solo debut, Dopamine--reflects an attention to the world outside the muted confines of the studio.
His recent penchant for turning high-profile, middlebrow/middle-age rock vets--from Los Lobos to Bonnie Raitt--into rejuvenated experimenters, and his gift for forcing vaguely talented types like Eitzel and Cibo Matto to do great things has made him as important as the folks he produces. The Froom aesthetic (created with collaborator Tchad Blake) begins with voguish '90s industry trends toward "lo-fi" recording and "junk-shop pastiche," and incorporates half-remembered movie soundtracks, disparate global pop, and ingeniously placed bits of conversation and incidental urban noise. This worked best on The Latin Playboys, where Froom and Blake made music to accompany a set of intensely personal, diffident folk-rock songs by Los Lobos' David Hidalgo and Louie Perez. Rooted in the blues but obscured by a haze thick with loose references to tropicalia, white noise, and pre-rock radio, The Latin Playboys created the effect of watching a single barrio street's history through a windowpane caked with decades of urban residue.
For the equally elusive Dopamine, Froom has utilized virtually the same process and written music to accompany lyrics by a slew of semi-popular alt-poppers--Soul Coughing's M. Doughty, Lisa Germano, Vega, Hidalgo, Perez, Eitzel, Crow, and Cibo Matto's Miho Hatori, among others. Froom's cinematic mojo works overtime, as he turns his cast of oddball singers into characters, and, now and again, caricatures. Hatori saunters though an aural jungle book where rumba rhythms and slack-key guitars animate a brood of cackling predators. "Why don't you come here," she sings, unleashing a sexual persona that's as spooky as it is coy. Fans of Froom's earlier work may feel more at home listening to Perez try to have a conversation over the most bombastic lounge band ever or watching Mark Eitzel "shuffle back and forth with decisions unmade" as he wanders through Paris at daybreak, haunted by an accordion worthy of Edith Piaf.
These settings make sense, but there's also a sense of iconoclasm here that keeps Dopamine from feeling like the post-rock equivalent of a celebrity golf invite. This is a dark ride, or, more accurately, a waiting room drenched in black light where no one looks up from his copy of Details. Even fun girl Crow spends her two minutes of Froom in a fit of hysterical yammering. Frat-hop king M. Doughty is ironically backed by a sax-heavy bar blues that can only be described as Bud-ad noir. Vega's turn is even grimmer; here the blank voice that readied the world for every deadpan post-fem from Liz Phair to (God save us) Natalie Imbruglia, sends up "Dopamine" against a tortured accompaniment of jangly acoustic guitar and sluggish drums.
Yet everyone seems to relish the chance to write songs for a role, and with Dopamine Froom imagines a kind of in-studio vaudeville that most of these post-rock singers could never replicate on their own.
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