Diana Froley 3: Lauraville
In some alternate universe, Diana Froley is a star. She swans down the red carpet at the Grammys, waving to fans, and stops by MTV's Total Request Live, where Carson Daly is thrilled to see her and hear about her latest project. Fledgling bands everywhere pore over her recordings, most recently with the Diana Froley 3, analyzing her lyrics and ripping off her sound--wannabes who take up the accordion in imitation of the DF3's Scott Larson are as ubiquitous as rap-metal turntablists. Each new album debuts in the top 10, and she is asked to sing the "The Star-Spangled Banner" at the Super Bowl.
In this universe, though, singer/songwriter/guitarist Froley is not particularly famous, at least not outside Baltimore's bohemian demimonde, and far from a box-lot-shifting seller. (Yet another disclosure: The DF3 also contributed a track to CP's Billie Holiday project.) But Lauraville--Froley's third disc, on her own Serious Records label, and her second with the DF3--presents the best evidence to date why she should be.
There are a few key reasons why Froley's music remains somewhat undersubscribed. Her singing seems to be the main sticking point, given her on-again/off-again relationship with conventional notions of proper pitch. (Then again, most people think Celine Dion's full-throated, port-wine-cheese-ball histrionics constitute good singing, so what do they know?) Froley's personable, drawling vocals and the shambling, arts-and-crafts backing of the other two-thirds of the 3 (drummer/multi-instrumentalist Larson and bassist/tremulous backing vocalist Rupert Wondolowski) personify her songwriting voice, which is of the kind and quality that come along all too rarely--funny, surprising, touching, and above all original." I was breaking rocks with a ladies' hammer/ I was melting a glacier with a blow dryer," "Seasick" begins. "I wallpapered my apartment with postage stamps/ I was seasick and the radio was playing the Cramps/ Then there was you. . . ." Froley's songs usually take similarly wry squints at attraction, love, and heartbreak, her sly wit offering evidence of resiliency even in the most extreme cases of the latter. She is an absolute master of the offhanded-sounding but brilliant couplet: "Reverse Honeymoon" can be encapsulated in the devastating "Separate beds at the Super-8/ My one desire, 5 feet away." Her songs, even when brief, tend toward stream-of-consciousness rambles--on Lauraville's episodic epic "February 1, 1979," she sounds like Bob Dylan to Stephin Merritt's Cole Porter--but a tune like "Alfred Jensen," inspired by a mathematically inclined painting in the Baltimore Museum of Art, shows that she can sustain a theme through each line as well as anyone. Then there's the seemingly endless supply of cheeky, quotable come-ons she sprinkles through her work ("You could get on more than my mind," she sings sweetly in "I Just Want to See You So Bad").
A truly good songwriter is usually a good judge of other people's songs, and Froley generously devotes five of the album's 13 tracks to equally fine compositions from a handful of her fellows, including Hank Williams' "I Can't Get You Off of My Mind," "Viva Del Shannon" by local duo the Lockhorns, "I Got to Be Patient" by local duo the Tinklers, "O Snickers Bar" by Serious Records artist/recluse Tom Owen, and "Talk to Jim" by Carmaig de Forest. The covers, especially the Lockhorns and Owen numbers, are revelatory; the guest appearances by the likes of reeds player John Dierker (who adds a wonderful solo to "Seasick"), cult pop goddess Linda Smith, and Radiant Pig's Liz Downing add value and charm. But it's Froley and the DF3's writing, singing, and playing that make Lauraville well worth a visit. Not to mention that alternate universe.