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Philip Frobos
Vague Enough To Satisfy Bernie Brooks , October 25th, 2021 08:21

Omni’s Philip Frobos plays it like some sort of bizarro, pickled LA lounge lizard in a low-key rock opera on his new solo LP, says Bernie Brooks

You know that scene in Repo Man? The one where Otto goes into the punk bar and sees The Circle Jerks in lounge act mode doing ‘When The Shit Hits The Fan’? Otto’s at a table and he says something like, “I can't believe I used to like these guys.” The band’s hamming it up on stage – playacting with too many acoustic guitars and a chintzy, prehistoric drum machine. The whole thing, including the music, is played for goofs, a riff on punk bands swerving from their lane and alienating their Real Punk fans in the process. See, Otto is a Real Punk and the joke is that whatever Morris & Co. are doing on that stage is embarrassing. The joke is that it sucks.

But (setting the song's suspect, warmed-over, 80s conservative griping and contempt for the welfare state aside) what if it doesn't suck? What if Otto sucks? What if, instead, it possesses an Ideal Vibe?

I have no idea if Omni rocker Philip Frobos rates Alex Cox. Nor do I know if he, too, thinks that Otto is blind to quality vibes. But who cares, because on his new, genuinely odd solo LP, Vague Enough To Satisfy, Frobos plays it like some sort of bizarro, pickled LA lounge lizard living in a low-key rock opera on the edges of a dime store detective paperback. In other words, he’s surfing that Ideal Vibe from start to finish, consequences be damned, though I suspect fans of Omni’s herky-jerky jams will be more forgiving than Cox’s repo man in training.

Still, they’d be forgiven an initial spit take. Omni are champs of off-kilter garage rock / post-punk on the Television axis. They’re the furthest things from a tough band, but they write great songs that zig and zag, that are just weird enough to stick with you, but not so weird as to totally disenchant the “leather jackets in the summer” crowd. Throughout Vague Enough To Satisfy, Frobos leans on the affable, kind weirdness that Omni have cultivated, while jettisoning any elements that could reasonably be described as “rocking”. The closest precedent in Omni’s back catalogue to the tunes that make up Vague might be something like ‘Genuine Person’, a standout number from 2019’s Networker, but even its amiable guitar amble feels luxurious, almost maximal compared to anything here. Which is funny, because you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who considers Omni to be a maximal band. Anyway, all of this is to say that – the inherent Frobos-ness of both projects notwithstanding – Vague Enough To Satisfy is about as far from Omni as a record by a guy from Omni could possibly be.

Omni is, at least on its face, a rock band, and rock is, to varying degrees, a trade in cool. But there’s nothing conventionally cool about the persistent, wheezing Wurlitzer rhythm box shuffle that ticks down time in the strange, spare sound world Frobos has created, or the minor league hockey organ that all but carries the bulk of these tracks. It’s clear from the outset that this LP is the outcome of a fully hermetic, Young Marble Giants-damaged artistic impulse, wholly unconcerned with any notion of what anyone but Frobos might want to hear. And that, at least in part, is why Vague Enough To Satisfy is so satisfying. Its thing, whatever it is, is pure and undiluted, uncompromised. Even its pair of covers – Steely Dan's ‘Through With Buzz’ and The Rolling Stones’ ‘The Singer Not The Song’ – are fully Vague’d, freed of adornment, boiled all the way down to the skeletal arrangements of organ, spindly guitar, meandering bass, and rhythmic hiss that characterize Frobos’s latest. ‘Through With Buzz’, stripped of Steely Dan’s finicky, irritating studio preciousness, is arguably improved. By which I mean I enjoyed listening to it. What can I say? Not a Dan fan.

Compounding the album’s general aura of oddness is its intended role as the original soundtrack to a book of the same name, also by Frobos. I haven’t read it yet, but according to the presser it’s about “a young man who revels in the day-to-day details (both romantic and mundane) of his experiences in Leipzig and Atlanta.” The record, for its part, is meant to reflect “the tides of the protagonist’s confidence and self-doubt throughout the novel.” For what it’s worth, I can hear it. It’s that low-key rock opera thing I mentioned above, even the instrumentals are rich with a sort of narrative sensibility.

As a conceit, it feels slightly David Byrne-ian, and much like a lot of Byrne’s work, there’s aura of quirk, of willful eccentricity, and of curio. On the back of the sleeve, for instance, there are instructions for syncing the record to your reading experience based on literary coordinates. To be clear, I’m not complaining. I like True Stories, and certainly nothing about the whole Frobos experience as intended and presented here is definitively a bad idea in and of itself. (While conversely, limiting creative endeavors to fit entirely within predefined, standard media strata is a bad idea, definitively). Honestly, it all seems like a pretty good time to me. But by the same token, records that double as curiosities run the risk of being perceived as addendums to something else, or as lesser parts of a larger whole, or worse, as mere byproduct.

So, what I want to underline is this: Vague Enough To Satisfy – the LP – can stand on its own. It’s unlikely you’ve heard anything as persistently ‘off’ in a similarly peculiar way for some time. I mean, a be-velveted lounge cover of Steely Dan that doesn’t make me want to put a drill through my hard drive? How rare is that? One thing’s for sure, Otto would hate it. But as we’ve already determined, Otto wouldn’t recognize an Ideal Vibe if it were a radioactive 64 Malibu.