California native Donavon Frankenreiter earned his reputation (and most of his livelihood since age 13) as a stylish pro surfer. Not surprising then that for his new album titled Pass It Around (Lost Highway), he opted for immersion of a different sort: into the legendary vibe of Sunset Sound in Hollywood, one of those historic recording studios where artists like The Doors, The Rolling Stones, John Lennon, and Warren Zevon laid down signature tracks. It says something about a musician's ambition when he forgoes some cost-saving alternatives and invests in a special kind of educational experience: to work where legends worked.
"It's about the experience," Frankenreiter said in a recent press release. "I want to touch the walls there. I want to sing into the microphones there. That's what recording is all about, being in those places where people have been before."
Beyond ambition, there's a certain humility in the willingness to slip into the deep end of a storied past and allow yourself to absorb its mojo. And that's bound to express itself. "Some days I'm only half my size/Some days I'm 10 feet kneelin'," Frankenreiter sings at one point.
Frankenreiter's openness to new experience also extended toward the making of this album — his most collaborative effort to date — beginning with producer Joe Chiccarelli, whose resume reads like a survey course of contemporary music: (Frank Zappa, Beck, U2, Tori Amos, Counting Crows, Etta James, Kronos Quartet, and My Morning Jacket, to name a very few). Like a great chef, producer Chiccarelli helped tease out new flavors in Frankenreiter's tunes. Surf guitars, mariachi horns, Doors-style organ, and the artist's vocals swirl in the stew, yielding a surprisingly cohesive musical image.
On all but two songs, Frankenreiter breaks with his previous M.O. and shares songwriting duties with friends old and new.
Grant Lee Phillips lent a hand with "Mansions on the Sand," a love song to the ocean. Ben Harper chipped in some vocals on the title track. Song after song, the album plays like the happy result of pulling some chairs around a groove and kicking it around with your musical buddies. It's unfussy, easy-going fun.
"Too Much Water" could be a tune straight off a mid-'70s Billboard chart-topper, with echoes of Badly Drawn Boy thrown in. "Come with Me" begins with acoustic guitar and hushed vocals; it's a coffeehouse folk number that turns into a bouncy pop tune. "Your Heart" unwinds like a spin around the SoCal radio dial, kicking off with mariachi brass, pulling in vintage '60s organ, swirly slack key guitar, and even some orchestral strings. "Hit the Ground Running" bops along with a funky, toes-in-the-sand stride.
In spirit, Frankenreiter's album recalls Chris Isaak's Baja Sessions, another album that recreated the feel of a surf-side vacation. Pass It Around might be exactly the right soundtrack for a laid-back summer evening get-together.
Much as this album represents a creative evolution for him, Frankenreiter hasn't given up surfing. But having a dual worklife means learning how to temper discipline with a little ease.
Of the many collaborations that shaped Pass It Around, Frankenreiter says, "I learned that I could let go a little. Let somebody else control the production. For me it was a comfortable place to be. I feel like I had to go through what I was going through in order to get to where I am today."