After drumming for Vivian Girls and Dum Dum Girls, Frankie Rose was in danger of being typecast as a punky Ronette. She did the fuzzy neo-girl-group thing one more time, on her 2010 solo debut, Frankie Rose and the Outs, then wisely veered off into looser, moodier music. She filled her next two LPs, Interstellar (2012) and Herein Wild (2013), with ‘80s synths, post-punk beats and pockets of strings, though the most distinctive element of her songcraft remained her singing. Rose’s layered, reverb-laden vocals hit like waves of sunlight, warming her lines almost to the point of wordlessness. All of this made her easy to like and a little frustrating to figure out.
Rose’s latest, Cage Tropical, doesn’t solve this conundrum. The vibe here is immaculate, intricate synth-pop, with glassy guitars and piano accents galore. The album comes with a loose sci-fi/paranormal theme that may reflect the project’s genesis. A few years ago, Frankie moved from Brooklyn back to her native California, where she suffered some personal drama and wound up working on a catering truck. She wasn’t sure she’d ever make another record—something this self-taught multi-instrumentalist has said before—but then she connected with Jorge Elbrecht, a master of nonobvious ‘80s revivalism who’s produced excellent records for Tamaryn, No Joy and his own band Violens. Inspired to start writing again, Rose came up with songs that hint at some of the pain she was feeling at the time.
Opener “Love in Rockets” is a spacious, radiant yearner with a chorus that goes, “A wheel, a wheel, a wheel, of wasting my life.” Rose may be picturing herself on one of those rotating-wheel space stations, much in the way she names “Dyson Sphere”—a Flock of Seagulls flight through perpetually gray skies—for a hypothetical structure that could be used to harness the power of a star. An almost Police-like New Wave reggae groove creeps into “Art Bell,” named for the late-night radio host whose paranormal-themed show helped Frankie through her West Coast wilderness years. (She’s now back in Brooklyn, where she finished Cage Tropical with some additional help from Dave Harrington of Darkside.)
On the title track, Rose sings over a lithe piano riff about the liberating effects of losing everything. The song, like the album, like Rose’s discography, says more about her good taste than it does her personality. In paranormal terms, Cage Tropical is an elegant ghost that slips into your dreams and leaves you with only vague memories of the experience. That would be fine if Frankie weren’t so close to doing something really haunting.