I really don’t think I have to do any penance for my review of Frampton Comes Alive! so I would appreciate it if you would not interpret my review of Fingerprints as a guilt trip reaction. As I am impervious to Catholic guilt, doing penance would be nonsensical even if I did feel some regret about the review, which I don’t. I do not need to make a trip to the confessional—hell, I couldn’t get past the “Bless me Father, for I have sinned” part because according to the standards of most religions, I sin every day, enjoy sinning immensely and don’t feel the slightest tinge of guilt about it.
No, my interest in doing a second Peter Frampton review has to do with the puzzlement I expressed in my initial contact with his music:
When I listened to the record, I figured out that the album was sugar-coated hard rock in about fifteen minutes, but after hearing the whole shebang, two aspects of the record troubled me. One: I couldn’t figure out why a guy with such a beautiful guitar tone and such nimble fingers was pissing away his potential by playing predictable shit. Two: Even though the music wasn’t particularly thrilling, the backing band was first-rate, and I absolutely fell in love with bassist Stanley Sheldon. I concluded that these guys were capable of so much more than twat-tingling, no-surprises rock ‘n’ roll and that Frampton Comes Alive represented a felonious act of pandering to the popular and the pussy. While Frampton certainly wasn’t the only rock star to target-market the fairer sex (duh), I sensed something in his approach that felt contrived and unnatural.
Combining logic with 21st-century conspiracy theory skills, I concluded that the real Peter Frampton had been body-snatched and replaced by an impostor—and that the real Peter Frampton was out there somewhere.
And I found him in Fingerprints.
It took a long time for Frampton to re-establish his reputation in the music world after what he called “the stigma of Frampton Comes Alive.” After the near-fatal accident, he recorded sporadically with middling success. The gaps between album releases grew in the 80s; he tried to resurrect his career following a five-year hiatus with two releases in 1994-95 but his schtick seemed out of place in the era of grunge, Britpop, alt-rock and punk revival.
Fortunately, Frampton found another path to reputational rehabilitation, largely thanks to fellow musicians who remembered him as one helluva guitarist. Old school chum David Robert Jones aka David Bowie invited Frampton into the studio to record Never Let Me Down and accompany him on the associated tour. Though the album is among Bowie’s most forgettable, the experience built Peter’s confidence and triggered the itch to engage with live audiences again. He did a few gigs with Humble Pie mate Steve Marriott before Marriott’s untimely death, toured with former bandmates John Regan and Bob Mayo and performed with Ringo Starr’s All-Star Band and Bill Wyman’s Rhythm Kings.
After his 2003 album Now failed to generate much interest, he decided to take a different approach with Fingerprints:
“I’ve never done a complete collection of instrumentals,” Frampton said in a recent press release. “This is something I’ve been needing to do for myself for a long time. This is the album I’ve been waiting my entire life to make . . . I wanted to play with people from all over the world, and I wanted to make the selections as diverse as possible. I didn’t want to make a smooth jazz album where the rhythm section plays the same on every tune.”
The fourteen musical explorations on Fingerprints cover a wide range of styles: classic rock, alt-rock, jazz, Latin, fusion, funk, blues, country, folk and American roots. The twenty-seven members of the supporting cast span the decades, from Hank Marvin of the Shadows to Mike McCready of Pearl Jam. The sheer musical and human diversity of the album could have resulted in a bloody mess, so kudos to Frampton and co-producer Gordon Kennedy for superb project management that results in a perfect balance between diversity and unity.
And it sure sounds like Peter and all the contributors had a really good time.
“Boot It Up”: The sheet music for the opening track describes the tempo as “moderately slow.” That pisses me off, for two reasons: one, it means all those years I spent mastering and applying the Italian terms for tempos is now useless information; and two, whether it’s “moderately slow” or moderato, it makes the piece sound boring from the get-go.
Fuck it. I’m going to start coming up with my own tempo terms. “Boot it Up” is “sexy strut with syncopated punctuation and strong thrust.”
I’ll get to the star soloists in a minute, but the first sound that grabbed my attention came from drummer Chad Cromwell, who seems to have played with everybody who is anybody: Joe Walsh, Neil Young, Willie Nelson, Jackson Browne, Miranda Lambert, Mark Knopfler and a host of others. I’ve rarely heard a drummer accentuate the backbeat with the sharpness and power of Chad Cromwell. Too many rock drummers take the backbeat for granted, probably because they’ve played it a gazillion times. Cromwell plays it like he means it, with rock ‘n’ roll feeling.
The strong rhythmic foundation frees Frampton (guitar, Ebow) and Courtney Pine, CBE (tenor saxophone) to ride the wave and trade seriously hot solos of varying length, longer in the opening stages and shorter in the closing stages as they increase the build on their way to the finish line. The timbral compatibility of Frampton’s “rough smoothness” and Pine’s “smooth full-throated sax” is remarkable, as if the two were born to play together. I love how Peter uses the Ebow to create extended sustains as much as I love Pine’s flutter tongue command that results in a set of thrilling flurries.
How much do I love “Boot It Up?” Let me count the ways . . . well, there’s actually only one: after listening to it for the first time, I immediately added it to three of my fuck playlists. I want to thank Peter Frampton, Courtney Pine and David Bowie (who arranged the Frampton-Pine connection) for providing me with what I’m sure will be hours of erotic pleasure.
“Ida Y Vuelta”: I’m not exactly sure how “ida y vuelta” wound up translated as “out and back.” My guess is that someone looked up each word in a flaky Spanish dictionary and failed to consider the possibility of an idiom in play.
Let’s get it right. Ida y vuelta is a very common idiom that means “round trip.” What it means in this context is that Peter Frampton and Stanley Sheldon had come “full circle” when they reconnected for this piece.
If you go to stanleysheldon.com and scroll down to the mini-bio on the home page, you’ll learn the ’90s were a very interesting decade for my favorite fretless bass player—a set of experiences that explain some of the influences that went into the creation of “Ida Y Vuelta”:
Sheldon devoted most of the ’90s to Latin American Studies at the University of Kansas. During this period he traveled widely throughout Latin America with his studies focused on slave society of the nineteenth century in Latin American countries and how its influence on past music continues to affect the transformation and hybridization of world music today. During this time, Sheldon played with various versions of a band that played son and salsa, often to sizeable dance crowds.
Sheldon credits Frampton for coming up with the basic progression, a rising chord pattern of Dm, F, Gm, Am with a transitional resolution from Bb to A(7); later in the song they introduce more variation and intricacy. Peter’s sensitive acoustic guitar performance is multi-tracked, a mix of rhythmic enhancement and melodic riffs; Sheldon alternates between rhythmic support and counterpoints, occasionally bending the notes to create delightfully bluesy bass moans. While there’s no doubt that the song has a Latin feel, the music is really a hybrid of Latin influences, from flamenco to Afro-Cuban, with Gustavo Ramirez introducing a touch of tango via a grand piano. The percussion contribution is also a hybrid of influences, with drummer Shawn Fichter (who earned songwriting credit alongside Frampton and Sheldon) bringing a funk/fusion sensibility to the piece along with some outstanding cymbal work and Daniel de los Reyes taking care of the Latin percussion with grace and ease. As opposed to “Boot It Up,” “Yda Y Vuelta” is “slow burn with plenty of spice.”
“Black Hole Sun”: This cover of one of the anthemic songs of the 90s centers around a guitar duet featuring Frampton and Mike McCready from Pearl Jam. Frampton remembered, “It was unnerving but exciting. There’s a lot of stuff going on in this tune. Mike said, ‘Let’s battle it out,’ so we went to places I had never gone before” (though he brought his talk box along for this one).
Thankfully, the duo devoted the first two segments to celebrating Chris Cornell’s memorable melody. The battle really begins at the 2:55 mark where Frampton and McCready launch complementary blistering attacks filled with finger-flashing dissonance. I have to call the bout a draw, with both combatants winding up as winners. Frampton may have never gone there before, but the truth is that Superunknown (the Soundgarden album featuring “Black Hole Sun”) marked a noticeable shift from grunge to hard rock, a genre Peter thoroughly explored during his time with Humble Pie.
“Float”: This duet with co-producer and Nashville guitarist Gordon Kennedy is an interesting mix of sweet country tones and a chord pattern with a touch of the mysterious in the form of an oddly appealing riff set to Fdim. Kennedy takes the lead guitar role while Frampton does double duty on acoustic and electric guitar, using the electric to harmonize with Kennedy’s sleek offerings. The song is set to a stately rhythm centered around a base pattern of Fm/C#/C but there are some very interesting key variations in what passes for the bridge. The piece definitely has a melancholy air, but that curious riff in Fdim feels like an “uh-oh” moment implying uncertainty and accompanying anxiety. Great piece of work.
“My Cup of Tea”: Fingerprints would have fallen short of the album Frampton always wanted to make without an appearance from Hank Marvin. “Hank is the reason why I play the guitar. It doesn’t get any better than this.” Like so many of his contemporaries, young Peter idolized Marvin, teaching himself to play many of Hank’s guitar parts.
In contrast to the fierce battle in “Black Hole Sun,” the piece is a display of mutual respect between two great guitarists, a compelling mix of solos, harmonies and counterpoints. The song itself is a gentle sway beginning in C major before moving on to complementary and contrasting minor and major chords. The melodies are lovely indeed, but what really amazes me are the guitar tones—clean and sweet with light bends and the classic sound of Marvin’s whammy bar. Absolutely gorgeous.
Hank wasn’t the only Shadow to make an appearance. Brian Bennett matches the mood and tone of the piece with a sensitive drum part featuring marvelous transitions between the separate passages. All in all, “My Cup of Tea” is a more-than-satisfying listening experience, and I’ll bet Peter was pretty satisfied with the results as well.
“Shewango Way”: I’m not particularly fond of the music or the main riff, and I really think Fichter should have focused his attention on the high and low toms instead of the snare, but there’s no faulting Frampton’s guitar attack or John Regan’s thumping bass.
“Blooze”: The rather modest opening passage of “Blooze” is a feint: as the arrangement gains strength, Frampton and Warren Haynes of Gov’t Mule and second-stage Allman Brothers Band transform the piece into one fucking hot blues number. There’s one tiny passage that blows me away. Haynes has already established himself as a turbo-charged picker while Frampton has focused more on long sustains, but at about the 3:44 mark they harmonize with blazing speed on a fill that makes me cry out, “How the fuck did they pull that off?” Ms. Fumble-Fingers-Guitarist hangs her head in both shame and guitar hero adulation.
“Cornerstones”: The reuniting of Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman after fourteen long years turns out to be a gas-gas-gas. You could always depend on Charlie to maintain a strong backbeat, and here he pulls it off in the midst of what turns out to be a fairly energetic performance of strong fills and cymbal crashes. Wyman remains in perfect sync with his old mate, imbuing the piece with nice thick bass throughout. At first, the song appears to be a classic minor blues number in A minor with a three-note move to resolution, but after a couple of go-rounds in the verses, a surprising shift to a B-G pattern enhances interest as well as mood, as sustained organ from Chris Stainton adds fresh color to the arrangement. The riffs in this minor blues number are reminiscent of the hard blues rock of the early ’70s, so this one is really in Frampton’s wheelhouse.
“Grab a Chicken (Put It Back)”: As the first sounds we hear are an excerpt from one of those godawful cooking shows, we can safely assume that “Grab a Chicken” will be a light and playful number. The core team of Frampton, Kennedy and Regan are again joined by Chad Cromwell, who continues his effort to get on the list of the altrockchick’s favorite drummers with a loose but engaging bash. Frampton and Kennedy pull double duty on acoustic and electric guitars, and their collaboration on his piece is superb, with each throwing in several hot rock licks. The “lyrics” are “sung” by Frampton’s talk box about halfway through the song, containing the vital message “Grab a chicken, put it back.” I’m hoping there’s a T-shirt.
“Double Nickels”: Renowned steel guitarist Paul Franklin adds a few touches of sinuous delight in this light composition from Frampton. While steel and electric guitars dominate the piece, my attention is drawn to Peter Frampton’s acoustic guitar which moves from repetition of the dominant theme to softly strummed chords to magical arpeggios high on the fretboard. Often it’s the little things that matter most, and Fingerprints is loaded with subtle bits of music you may miss if you’re not paying close attention—a sure sign of top-flight arranging.
“Smoky”: Frampton’s work on this piece has been compared to Wes Montgomery, a fair assessment indeed. The piece is a modification of minor blues enhanced by “jazz chords,” mainly major and minor sevenths, major and minor sixths and a stray diminished chord or two. John Regan switches to double bass for this piece, and the presence of grand piano and organ complete the jazz combo instrumentation. I noticed that the reaction of many rock-oriented critics amounted to “Oh, shit, here comes the obligatory jazz piece.” My reaction is to cue the bartender to pour me another stiff one while I light a cigarette and immerse myself in the light sway of the foreplay-suitable music.
“Blowin’ Smoke”: Those same rock critics fell in love with “Blowin’ Smoke,” one referring to the piece as “another great classic rock guitarfest” involving Frampton and McCready. I don’t think this piece comes close to the power and cohesion of “Black Hole Sun,” and ironically, this improvisation doesn’t offer much in the way of surprise. Not my favorite.
“Oh, When”: Eric C. Olsen at cleveland.com wrote an insightful review of Fingerprints and had this to say about “Oh, When”: “a heartfelt ode to his father . . . which he played as a tribute at his father’s funeral then turned around and recorded for inclusion here. In fact, Fingerprints is dedicated to his father and the impact that his encouragement made in his son’s life as a guitar player.” What I love about this acoustic instrumental is that it’s not the least bit mournful but filled with love and gratitude, expressed not in words, but through the emotional intimacy of music.
“Souvenirs De Nos Péres“: It’s time for your random French lesson! Souvenirs ≠ the junk you buy to commemorate your trip to Disneyland. Souvenirs = memories. The English translation of the title is “Memories of Our Fathers,” making the song a thematic companion piece to “Oh, When.”
What’s different is Peter didn’t write this song; it was written by multi-instrumentalist John Jorgenson, who earned the honor of Academy of Country Music Guitarist of the Year and played both lead and rhythm acoustic guitar in the piece. It should become apparent within the first few seconds that the “father” Jorgenson had in mind was Django Reinhardt. Not only do the guitars emulate Django’s style, but Frampton also engaged violinist Stephan Dudash to play viola, adding the essential Stephane Grapelli presence. Had they recorded the piece with 1940 studio equipment, you might think you’re listening to the genuine article. It’s the perfect conclusion to an album that celebrates the stunning diversity and cherished traditions of the guitar.
There are two aspects of Fingerprints that deserve your full attention. The otherwise pathetic Wikipedia article that devotes a grand total of three sentences to this remarkable album does contain a list of the studios where the album was recorded (though I can’t vouch for total accuracy):
Muchmore Studio, Cincinnati, Ohio; Track 5 at British Grove Studios, London, England, Tracks 3 and 12 at Robert Lang Studios, Seattle, WA, Track 8 at Eden Studios, London, England, Track 14 at OGM Studios and Jorgensounds, Nashville, TN
You may read the list and conclude, “Wow! Peter Frampton sure earned a lot of airline miles making this album.” Nope! The track details on Discogs and the following excerpt from Olsen’s review would indicate that at least some of the collaborations took place via the Internet:
“I was talking with my friend David Bowie on the phone one day and he asked me if I had gotten around to putting a sax on the record yet,” explains Frampton. “I told him, no, it’s all guitars. He said, ‘I’ve got a sax player for you-Courtney Pine.’ So I sent an mp3 of the track, he loved it and then added in a sax part. That put the icing on the cake.”
Given the results, I would classify this approach as a good use of digital technology. It’s really no different than those situations when the lead singer calls in sick or hungover and the other guys record the backing track, knowing that the singer will recover in a couple of days and add his vocal to the mix.
Another quote from Olsen reveals a key decision Frampton made that validates the authenticity of the performances but coincidentally connects to a current threat to authenticity:
. . . This in turn led to a new tune “Blowin’ Smoke”, as he and McCready improvised together. This meeting of the minds gave Frampton a framework for the rest of the project as he realized that, in order to make the music he wanted, he would need to record all the guitar tracks live, instead of dubbing sections and putting them together as you would a puzzle.
What you hear in Fingerprints is true craftsmanship; the real McCoy, so to speak. I’ve already commented on the threat to craftsmanship inherent in digital technology; now we face the possibility that the charts will soon be filled with products of Artificial Intelligence. For all I know, AI may someday produce some pretty good or even great music. The problem I have is that it pretty much removes craftsmanship from the musical equation.
I hate to come across as a Luddite, but I’ll take the craftsmanship displayed by Peter Frampton in his colleagues over anything AI can come up with. My greatest hope is that one of the AI developers figures out a way to tell AI to go fuck itself and the whole idea crashes and burns.