Shadows and Frogs

Have Milwaukee duo the Frogs abandoned their shady ways?

Well, they've been threatening to do it for years, and now they've finally done it: The Frogs have released a record composed almost entirely of love songs. While they have been guilty of writing love songs in the past, this is their first collection of songs that touches on, for the most part, "normal" love, and not the gerontophilic, necrophilic, or pedophilic sentiments that marked their earlier albums. Sure, there's the occasional reference to nipple clamps, incest, and various aspects of the sex/violence paradigm, but for the most part, this is an awfully tame album for a band that has turned the musical arena into an aural gross-out contest.

The fabulous Flemion brothers--who have served as the core of the Frogs since the early Eighties, joined by a dozen-plus bassists over the years--first approached music with more innocent interests. A troupe of traveling musicians came to their Milwaukee elementary school to perform and to sell $1 harmonicas to students. Both Dennis and Jimmy, excited about starting their careers as professional musicians, naively bought harmonicas only to discover that you couldn't just pick one up and immediately sound like Bob Dylan. Years later, an old electric organ in a friend's house lured the brothers into the world of music again. With Dennis on percussion and Jimmy on guitar, the siblings performed at coffeehouses and neighborhood bars for nearly a decade as both the Gila Monsters and the Stupid Frogs. Eventually, they settled on their official band name, the Frogs, and released their self-titled debut--a relatively innocuous collection of pop songs dealing with love and God that attracted the attention of Matador.

But it was their first Matador release, It's Only Right and Natural--a controversial collection of gay ballads--that gained them instant cult fame and notoriety, as well as a spot on the Lollapalooza second stage. Coinciding with the record's release was gossip that the Flemion brothers were actually lovers--a rumor spread by Jimmy and Dennis themselves. To further confound audiences, the duo became known for their strange stage antics and outfits, including Jimmy Flemion's famous bat-wing costume, complete with Mardi Gras headdress, the first incarnation of which made its debut in Minneapolis at the now-defunct Upper Deck. (The Frogs will be returning to town this Saturday, July 28 for a show at First Avenue.) Dennis, more often than not, appears in blackface and an ill-fitting suit. An attempt was made to release a follow-up record to It's Only Right and Natural on Matador, another theme-related collection called Racially Yours, whose cover featured one Flemion brother in blackface and one in whiteface. The album went unreleased for a while, before landing on Four Alarms Records last year.

Surprisingly, Matador was happy to issue My Daughter the Broad, which had more than its share of references to pedophilia, as in songs like "Which One of You Gave My Daughter the Dope?" No critical thinker could misconstrue the album as a true tribute to luring children into one's pants with promises of drugs--just as no thoughtful person would be likely to misconstrue songs like "Whitefully Dead" and "2 Blacks Don't Make a White" as unironic racist anthems. What the less thoughtful listener might make of the Frogs is a more problematic proposition. Since Racially Yours, the Frogs' shows, at least in Minneapolis, have been surprisingly well-attended by the backward-baseball-cap-wearing contingent, who perhaps erroneously heard that the Frogs make fun of being gay and being black. It was apparent at the Frogs' last 7th Street Entry gig that this new crew of fans was disappointed that the band would not sing their more inflammatory songs to this type of audience.

It may be because of this experience--finding their sly songs embraced for unsavory reasons by the wrong crowd--that the Frogs have released an album like Hopscotch Lollipop Sunday Surprise (Scratchie) with scant offensive material. One gets the feeling that the Frogs may be tired of constantly upping the ante on their over-the-top entertainment: The song "F**k Off" seems to allude to this tension with the lyric, "For all those who say/'Make me happy', my door's locked, my phone's unplugged/Go away." The 13-song disc is a collection of straight-up, relatively ordinary pop tracks, with polished home production and a few hired guns for certain tracks, including Smashing Pumpkins' Billy Corgan (listed in the liner notes as "Johnny Goat") on "The Longing Goes Away."

Though this duo have typically been known for their lyrics, the strength of this album is the musical arrangements. The opening track, "Whisper," is such a pleasant, pleading love song that it would, in a perfect world, find a spot on commercial radio. The song even features a guest vocal appearance by none other than ex-Skid Row hair-metal hooligan Sebastian Bach. There are still a few mild shockers on the album. One surprising musical coup is "Bad Daddy." Behind the story of incest and a man who offers babies to pit bulls is a swelling orchestral backdrop of synth horns, baroque keyboards, acoustic guitars, bells, harmonicas, and glimmery washes that are worthy of Phil Spector.

Another standout track, "Better Than God," makes its studio debut after being a standard part of the Frogs' live set for at least the past two tours--and it's worth the wait. Live, the song is almost comical, performed by a usually inebriated Jimmy Flemion howling the falsetto chorus off-key while brother Dennis beats time on a set of synth drums. On the CD version, Jimmy hits all the notes just right, backed by electric-guitar fills that sound appreciably better than the cheesy, piece-of-crap ax that makes its appearance at every show, and by a full percussion kit as well.

For a while now, the brothers' performances have been either punctuated by obvious bad chemistry between the brothers, bad chemistry between the brothers and their audience, or bad chemistry between the brothers and their equipment. A "good" Frogs show has begun to mean a show where the band doesn't completely fall apart and storm offstage after the last song clunks to an end, while a bad show usually means fans have been forced to watch some embarrassing altercation between the band members and/or the band and the audience.

Previously, even the most faithful Frogs fan has sometimes been forced to wonder whether this duo can play their instruments. Yet Hopscotch Lollipop Sunday Surprise features so many styles of music--from metal to folk to psychedelia--handled with such startling mastery that it seems this must be the grade-A material that's been secretly molding on the shelves for years, just waiting for the right time to be unleashed on the world.

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