Throughout his long and varied career, Frank Lenz has excelled in the mechanics of music. His drumming skills are legendary, his vocal range is startlingly broad, and his ear for writing delicate arrangements augments every recording he is involved with. Yet, after three full-length CD’s, his ability to convey the thoughts and emotions of his own soul has been shrouded in his dazzling musical talents. While there were moments of transparency on the fabulous psych-pop-folk full-length, Conquest Slaughter, one still got the feeling that Lenz was holding back his emotions, or at the least that he was holding his personal cards closely with his oblique lyrics. At the same time, on Lenz’ successive releases, he has been increasingly leaning towards the singer/songwriter style of music, having begun with the party retro-funk of The Hot Stuff, through the strange pop of The Last Temptation of Frank Lenz, finally settling on more constructed songs on Conquest Slaughter.
However, after some message-board-publicized personal trials, Lenz has emerged from his living room studio with a batch of true singer/songwriter songs that reflect the upheaval Lenz was experiencing at the time of writing the songs. Eschewing his usual dense songwriting arrangements, and even stepping from behind the drum kit, Lenz crafts on Vilelenz and Thieves intensely personal songs about loss, making mistakes, and heartache, from the perspective of a world-weary man. The appeal of Vilelenz and Thieves, then, is not in the usual arranging brilliance found on Lenz records (though the melodies and slight arrangements that do show up on the CD are beautiful), or in hearing Lenz layer his vocals in gorgeous harmonies (though stripped naked, his voice sounds vulnerable and expressive); rather, the appeal of this CD lies in the intense and desperate personal journey that Lenz takes the listener on. Vilelenz and Thieves is cathartic and depressing…just the kind of CD that listeners in similar life situations find so dear to them as they go through their own personal journeys of desperation.
After opening with an instrumental ditty, Vilelenz and Thieves begins in earnest with “Weekend Friends”. Accompanied by a lone picked acoustic guitar, slight piano accents, and a bare harmony, Lenz sings, “Everybody runs when trouble comes”, signalling the morose content of his CD. “I’ve Got Other Things To Do” is a dainty little folk number which has Lenz relinquishing his fight in life to just “get high”. “Libertution” is the closest thing to a rock song on Vilelenz and Thieves, with its distorted electric guitars, lazy shakers for percussion, and tight melody. The highlight of the CD may come on the fifth track, the lovely “Hi I.Q. Underachiever”, which is a solemn folk song featuring little details (such as a liquidy guitar backing up Lenz vocals on the chorus, and a slightly dissonant chord structure at the song’s climax) that cause the song to stick in the mind of the listener. Of course, lyrically the song it striking, not only recounting the story of the underachiever, but also hinting to incest and rejection in touching and profoundly sad lyrics. “The End Of Good Friends” is a sad instrumental with a sadder title. “Walking”, which shifts the mood of the CD, could almost be a pop song from the late 1960’s or 1970’s if it wasn’t for the strange buzzsaw circus guitar parts. Lenz sings, “Just walk on by” to a simple piano arrangement that is supported by the guitars, bass, and even a drum part. “Bullets In The Wall” returns to the morose themes such as rejection and self-abasement, found on Vilelenz and Thieves, and to the simple folk production, as Lenz sings to a single guitar and elegant string section. The rest of the four songs on Vilelenz and Thieves range from pretty folk with falsetto vocals (“Padre”) to dark ruminations on life (“Bad Art”), each song portraying at a slightly different angle the simultaneous anguish and numbness Lenz was feeling as he wrote the album.
It is this treatment of anguish, numbness, resiliency, and surrender that makes Vilelenz and Thieves so remarkable, particularly as the CD comes from an artist who up to this point hasn’t expressed himself so openly. Every song reeks with honesty, frailty, and rawness, with simple (and yet pristine) music to support the emotions. Vilelenz and Thieves is an emotional release that surpasses expectations, even with Lenz’s conservative and understated music approach. Lenz has come into his own as a songwriter on this CD; and let’s hope, for the man’s sake, that his next batch of songs reveal a more content and peaceful life for this talented musician.