Frampton Forgets The Words

Peter Frampton Band

Universal, 2021

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


If you had told me on New Year’s Day that one of my favorite releases of the first half of 2021 would be an album of instrumental covers by a senior-citizen ’70s pop-rock icon in the early stages of a career-threatening malady, I would have said that’s the most 2020 thing I’ve heard yet this year. It just makes no sense, and yet here we are.

Peter Frampton summited the rock world back in 1976, a burgeoning solo artist (after a strong start in Humble Pie) whose natural affinity for the stage and magical combination of good looks, solid chops, sweet ballads, and tastefully presented rock and roll delivered the best-selling live album of all time, Frampton Comes Alive! Casual observers might believe it’s all been downhill from there, but look closer. Yes, Frampton’s career nose-dived almost as quickly as it soared, but by the second half of the ’80s he’d been plucked from the sidelines by friend and admirer David Bowie to play guitar in his band, and ever since he’s toured steadily and delivered one confident, rangy album after another, notably 2003’s Now and 2006’s all-instrumental Fingerprints.

More recently, Frampton revealed his diagnosis with inclusion body myositis, an inflammatory disease that weakens and atrophies the muscles in the arms, hands, and legs, and which in time will likely rob him of the ability to play guitar. Rather than wallow in this bad fortune, Frampton has gone after it harder than ever, mounting a widely-praised 2019 farewell tour (that I was lucky enough to witness), and recording as much music as he can while he can.

As my dad used to say, it’s quite a story. The thing about Peter Frampton is, he knows all this. And while he went through a rough patch in the aftermath of Alive, he’s long since not just accepted but embraced his fate, and all the self-knowledge that comes with it. He knows the images and memories his name conjures up, and he’s fine with that, but he’s not about to let it stop him from doing what he does best: making music.

This first in what promises to be a string of releases, titled with typical latter-day cheekiness Frampton Forgets The Words, features the man playing instrumental covers of a batch of personal favorites. Which sounds like it might be a lazy approach, but turns out to be quite the opposite. Frampton’s love for these songs, and joy at the opportunity to play them, is palpable on every track. And his playing—well, let’s be clear: Bowie didn’t hire Frampton back in 1987 out of pity—he brought him on because he needed a world-class guitar player, and that’s exactly what he got.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Speaking of pity, let’s start with one of several highlights here: Frampton’s cover of George Harrison’s “Isn’t It A Pity.” Harrison was a friend—Frampton previously covered “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” in tribute to him—but here he takes on one of the Dark Horse’s iconic solo tunes with such a remarkable combination of delicacy and passion that it’s simply breathtaking. He honors George by being utterly faithful to the spirit of the song—mimicking his elastic, elongated notes to the point where you’d recognize it instantly as a Harrison song even if you weren’t familiar with this particular one—and yet it’s also identifiably Frampton, full of soulful precision, not to mention stellar tone.

Harrison is hardly the only big name Frampton tackles here, one after another, in sometimes astonishing sequence. Right out of the gate he follows the snazzy funk-jazz of Sly Stone’s “If You Want Me To Stay” with the dreamy, haunting space-rock of Radiohead’s “Reckoner,” an eye-opening one-two punch that speaks volumes about Frampton’s skills as an interpreter of others’ work (and in fact, he was an in-demand session player through the early ’70s, the entire time he was building toward Alive).

As if to further the point about his range, he follows with a nimble, passionate cover of jazzmen Michel Colombier and Jaco Pastorious’ “Dreamland” before transforming Smokey Robinson’s “One More Heartache” with a churning fusion treatment.  Both the former’s lightness and the latter’s heaviness come to fruition with the support of Frampton’s crack band: Rob Arthur (keyboards and string arrangements), Adam Lester (guitars), and Dan Wojciechowski (drums and percussion), with session man Glenn Worf sitting in on bass.

The heart of the album features, in succession: an elegant, deftly arranged, gradually blossoming cover of “Avalon” (Bryan Ferry / Roxy Music); that masterful take on “Isn’t It A Pity”; and a steady-building, passionate reimagining of Stevie Wonder’s “I Don’t Know Why,” finishing off the latter with a fireworks finale of a solo. Okay, fine, you’re thinking, he’s got range all day, but… how about something heavier? As if on cue, Frampton delivers “Are You Gonna Go My Way,” covering a stomping Lenny Kravitz tune that itself channels Hendrix. People who only know Frampton from “Baby, I Love Your Way” might not know, or might have forgotten, that one of Alive’s many highlights is his bruising cover of the Stones’ “Jumping Jack Flash.” Here he brings every bit of swagger, drive, distortion and flair the song demands and has an absolute blast playing it.

Things do calm down a bit in the closing moments. First Frampton pays tribute to his old friend by giving Bowie’s “Loving The Alien” a jazz-fusion treatment where he solos gorgeously over a not-at-all contradictory pairing of heavy rhythm section and lush strings. Finally, he invites frequent collaborator and award-winning songsmith Gordon Kennedy to sit in on acoustic for a swaying, lyrical cover of his song “Maybe,” previously covered by Alison Krauss.

“The people I admire,” Frampton has said, “I find that they’re humble people. The reason they’re so good is because they’re so humble. They think they need to get better. Which we all do.” It’s a perspective Frampton puts into practice daily. Gifted with tremendous range and a deft touch, Frampton has by now shed all remaining self-consciousness and freed himself to inhabit these songs as only he can. Confident, tasteful, fluid and fiery, Frampton Forgets The Words is quite possibly the best thing the man has released since—well, you know. We all do.

Rating: A-

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