I was pretty excited to hear about the new disc “Fingerprints” (A&M/New Door/UMe) from Peter Frampton, a seminal guitar god from the ’70s who became enormously famous for his “Frampton Comes Alive” album and for his formant-tube guitar “talk box” sound on that record 30 years ago. I hadn’t really thought about him much lately except when my iTunes jukebox cycled around to his tunes. So, getting the new disc was like hearing from an old friend again.

Peter Frampton 2006What makes the album intriguing is that it’s an instrumental album, where Frampton teams with many musicians he is friends with, or who he’s always wanted to work with. The press materials have a great paragraph about the disc which I could reword to make my own, but I think it speaks well of the line-up of talent found on the album:

“Fingerprints features Frampton having exhilarating musical conversations with a who’s who of the pop world, including Rolling Stones Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman, Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready and Matt Cameron, original Shadows Hank Marvin and Brian Bennett, Allman Brothers/Gov’t Mule slide slinger Warren Haynes, Nashville pedal steel virtuoso Paul Franklin and gypsy guitar maestro John Jorgenson. In addition, Frampton band mate, Gordon Kennedy, who co-wrote many of the originals as well as co-produces the album, is prominently featured as a guitar companion.”

When I mentioned to a couple of friends I was reviewing the new Frampton album, inevitably one smart remark came up which was “Frampton is still alive?” which, although a jest at the expense of Pete based on the title of his mega successful “Alive” underscores how many of the truly talented musicians of the 60s, 70s and 80s who don’t subscribe to the “hit factory” school of music can fall from the public’s consciousness. The last I’d really heard from Frampton was in 2000, when he earned a “Best Rock Instrumental Performance” Grammy nomination for “Live in Detroit” and I bought the 2003 “Now” which earned this review from an Associated Press writer: “When it comes to fiery, guitar-drenched rock, Frampton delivers.”

Unlike many of his rock contemporaries, Frampton has traditionally not done collaborations to raise awareness of his albums, or to stay current with the so-called gen-x and gen-y crowd. Carlos Santana has always been an instrumentalist who brings in guest vocal talent and lyricists for the current decade, and this has helped him sell CDs to new generations who would not otherwise have known who he was.

With solo artists like Frampton, who does both the playing and is the front man on vocals, it’s actually harder to stay fresh in a world filled with boy bands and overly sexed teen pop princesses. Without directly catering to “boomers,” it’s difficult to compete with “My milkshake brings more boys to the yard” or the latest Beyonce video, or the crop of pop-rock bands who provide the soundtrack for just about every youth oriented TV show and movie currently made. Ironic since he was one a pop idol, movie star and as recognizable as any music celebrity. But, he’s always a little overshadowed by that one big album that is still considered the best selling live record of all time (with 16 million copies sold, it’s also one of the best selling records of any decade in any genre).

Personally I think it’s a really ballsy, and possibly brilliant, idea to do an instrumental album and concentrate on both the playing and the vibe that comes from good rock, blues and even the pop-jazz music of sax players like Dave Koz. I am likely the target audience for this disc, since I buy every album that Joe Satriani puts out, since I dig his guitar playing, and the rock and melodic hooks over which he can then noodle or riff without worrying about whether the vocal performance or lyrics mean anything or not.

For Frampton, I think the instrumental CD was also a brilliant idea since it’s a little later in his career to be singing of first loves, riding that pony to the rodeo, or any of the other pop music clichés that are recycled for each new set of tweens and teens. Even rock and metal have their clichés, and it’s often easy to fall into that. Even Paul McCartney suffered from some pretty unremarkable work during the long decline of his wife Linda, and the subsequent album when she had passed was filled with the emotion of that, and then his work when he found new love was a major rekindling of his gifts lyrically and musically. But major life events like these are not always fodder for good music, and few can bring emotion to their craft in quite that way. The point is: the “voice” you bring to an album is most notable when it’s from the inner workings of your soul, your psyche, or your experiences. With this disc, Frampton gets to play guitar, which is his core happy thought when it comes to music. And he’s a great player.

Fingerprints CD - Peter FramptonSo, how’s the album? A little bit mixed on first listen, then I really got into it. I really like most of the songs, particularly, “Cornerstone” with Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts from the Rolling Stones, and “Shewango Way” which is co-written by and features Frampton band mate, Gordon Kennedy.

The Soundgarden hit “Black Hole Sun” with Pearl Jam guitarist McCready and drummer Matt Cameron became the ear-worm of the disc for me, stuck in my head while doing other things like laundry or washing the car. It’s also one of the two tracks to feature some moderate and very subtle signature talk box work by Frampton. On “Sun” it almost sounds like a vocoder sample and actually helps the tune since I found my brain filling in the words on the chorus anyway.

Frampton said in the press materials, “I’ve known Bill Wyman for a while and played with him before. He was one of the first people I asked to play on the album. He said yes, and then I asked if Charlie would come in too. We all jumped in and came up with this song (Cornerstone) that started off with me playing a riff.”

The one song that didn’t really grab me is the first one “Boot it Up” with a guest sax player, Courtney Pine, who was recommended to Frampton by his pal David Bowie. I think another guitar would have been better than the sax, but it does give the record label a song to target toward the smooth jazz radio stations, although “Double Nickels” fits into that milieu just fine and features licks by pedal steel king Paul Franklin.

The songs I liked more each time I listened to the disc, was “Grab A Chicken” (with Kennedy), which has a little bit of the talk box as well as sampled instructions from Internet cooking programs about how to cook a chicken; and “Blowin’ Smoke” (with McCready and Cameron). The latter has likely become my favorite song and the one I’d happily pay for if I were forced to “buy only one” from a music download service.

I liked the little homage riff to Simon and Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson” at the start of “Double Nickels” which also has a bit of a country music feel to it and some great Q&A playing between Frampton and Franklin.

The interesting thing about the album for me was that I kept thinking I’d love to hear an entire album with just Frampton, McCready, Cameron and Kennedy. The material from the four Kennedy collaborations and the two songs with McCready and Cameron were the real stand-outs for me.

Unlike some guitarists who have one signature sound, perhaps like the afore mentioned Carlos Santana, Frampton gets a wide variety of tones and sounds from his collection of guitars and amps and so each song stands on its own. He plays a Tacoma Acoustic C2 Chief, Gibson Les Paul Classic (1960), Les Paul Peter Frampton Model (*ahem* – signature sound, of course), G&L ASAT, and Les Paul JR (1958). With the guests playing their own guitars the mix of duets between players is quite lovely to hear.

I saw one comment from a buyer on Amazon.com that it might have been better to have the separate players panned left/right to make it more clear who was playing what, and this has been done on other duet-style instrumental gigs; but I think in this case it would have detracted from the overall mixes which are very nice on both the home stereo, the iPod and in the car.

It’s interesting that Frampton recently guested on the premiere episode of the FOX TV series “Celebrity Duets,” which was a bold experiment for the 56 year old rocker. Sadly he was paired with Chris Jericho of the WWE, which must have been the bad luck of the draw there. It’s unfortunate that VH1 no longer has the series “Storytellers” which is right where I would like to see Frampton showcased for an album like this one.

For Frampton, the sweet spot for the project had to be his getting to work with two of his long time heroes from the Shadows, drummer Brian Bennett and guitar slinger Hank Marvin.

According to Frampton, the bluesy “My Cup of Tea,” came together via intercontinental swapping of ideas by mp3. Once the group convened in a London studio, his dream was fulfilled. “I was beaming ear to ear,” Frampton says. “Hank is the reason why I play the guitar. It doesn’t get any better than this.”

Frampton traces the genesis of Fingerprints to two experiences: catching the fever of British instrumental rock music at its birth in 1960, when the Shadows scored a pop hit with the tune “Apache,” and then 35 years later when Shadows’ lead guitarist Marvin came backstage at a Frampton concert and affirmed that indeed one day he’d love to cut a track with him. “We spent an hour asking each other questions and talking about guitars,” says Frampton. “My idol even asked me what kind of strings I used.”

According to Frampton, at the beginning of his career, he had one thing on his mind: playing the guitar like the Shadows’ Hank Marvin and Elvis Presley’s Scotty Moore. “I didn’t want to sing,” he says. “I wanted to be the guy behind the singer playing solos. I’d listen to Elvis songs but my focus was on Scotty. People like Hank and Scotty set the template for me.”

Frampton brings a poignant epilogue to the project with the second to final track on the album, “Oh, When” written for his late father, Owen (hence “Oh When”). Frampton played the song at the funeral, recorded it on a small recorder when he was in England, then returned home and tracked it. Frampton says that Fingerprints is a testament to his father’s encouragement in playing the guitar. “The whole album is dedicated to him,” he says.

Overall, a worthy addition to Frampton’s career and if you’re at all into instrumental guitar, melodic rock, and even something to listen to while you’re working in the background, this disc fits into all those spaces rather well.

“Fingerprints” is released on the A&M / New Door Records label, a division of Universal Music Enterprises (UMe). New Door Records is primarily dedicated to producing new music from historically significant UMG recording artists. Artists from all genres such as Styx, Smokey Robinson, Todd Snider, Joe Cocker, Nanci Griffith, Tears for Fears, The Temptations, Billy Ray Cyrus, Alien Ant Farm, and a brand new signing, Joseph Israel, have made New Door Records their home for their new recordings.

Fingerprints is available everywhere you can purchase music and was released Sept. 12, 2006.

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Rating for “Fingerprints”:

    From 1 to 10: 8.5
    Musicianship: 9
    Replayability: 7
    Desert Island Keeper: 4
    Number of EarWorm Factor Songs: 2

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[tags]Peter Frampton Fingerprints, music reviews, Christopher Simmons, music industry, new cd review, New Door Records, guitar god, behind the eye, instrumental music[/tags]