It’s hard not to admire Frank Schweikhardt’s distinct lack of showmanship. Even as I lament having to repeatedly write the name “Schweikhardt” throughout this review, I’m almost gratified that he stuck with a name so difficult to spell and pronounce. His debut album, Life But No More, is so determinedly free of the need to grab your attention that one almost feels the urge to consider that quality to be cool. Nearly the entire record is comprised of gentle finger picking on an acoustic guitar, light brushing on the drums, and gloomy songs sung in the most dejected baritone this side of Smog. Hell, the album’s title is all but a warning to the listener: what you will find encoded on this CD is simply a miserable take on humanity. No bells and whistles. Nothing but wall-to-wall desolation.
It’s not easy, but some musicians can actually pull off a full-length album built on a foundation of low-key doom. Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s I See A Darkness comes to mind, as does the aforementioned Smog’s Dongs Of Sevotion (or Red Apple Falls, or really anything in his catalog), but those guys knew how to vary their arrangements. If not for the one comparatively upbeat respite midway through the album (“Twin Cities”), or the slight, barely audible sonic weirdness that hangs deep in the background of “K and the Kids,” there’s be almost no way of differentiating one song from another. It’s an album burdened by its songwriter’s devotion to homogeneity.
It’s particularly frustrating considering all that is working in Schweikhardt’s favor. Very few vocalists have such an evocative baritone, giving Schweikhardt’s work the feel of a less arch Mike Doughty. Lyrically, Schweikhardt traffics in simple ambiguities, rarely making much effort to poetically dress up his thoughts. The sum total of the lyrics in “Disclaim” is “They don’t love you/Are you scared?”. Elsewhere, on the painfully slow “Hidden”, Schweikhardt repeatedly intones “You can’t know.” The barely described female character at the center of “Twin Cities” is commended several times over for her “goodness,” yet chastised for failing to recognize Schweikhardt’s “goodness.” Say what you will about the guy, but anyone willing to repetitively use the word “goodness” in his lyrics is, at the very least, not too pretentious.
Yet regardless of how unaffected Schweikhardt appears to be, the final word on Life But No More really has to focus on how boring this record is. It’s a noble failure, to be certain. Schweikhardt aimed to record a touchingly modest record, and unfortunately leaned a little too hard on the modesty element. Maybe Schweikhardt will learn to indulge in a little ostentation next time.