On Frankie Cosmos and Friend-Rock

Why would I write about whether Vessel is good or not? For me, it’s like whether a dog is good or not. The dog is of course a good dog.

There was only ever friend-rock, for me.

I am listening to Frankie Cosmos’s Vessel. I used to be in a band called Krill. We were active for about five years total, but really for about three years of a lot of touring and songwriting and spending time at shows. In the scope of that short life cycle, we grew up with Frankie Cosmos. Luke, Krill’s first drummer, joined Frankie a couple years back. I feel both connected to and distant from Krill now. Like with a dead relative, it has missed out on so much that I now feel is formative and important. Its absence becomes a distance. Frankie is like dead Krill’s living friend, who can tell me old stories about my old band, and maybe about who I would’ve been if I hadn’t switched tracks. Part of what I’m saying is that the music that I feel close to feels like it contains a part of me and there is a recognition between it and myself, and an alignment. The bands I like are all me, and I am them, too. All tracks on the same album. Or something. Or all members of the same band. Maybe that’s what I mean.

When Greta sings, “And I knew if I thought really hard about flying, I could probably do it, I’m just too tired for trying,” that is not a finished line. It doesn’t really work, but is exactly the kind of thing I kept in my songs, too. Greta is more of an artisan about it. She reminds me of my brother in that way. She used to put up 15-track albums on her Bandcamp with accidents and ephemera in them, but even that is a mark of a crafter. My brother used to do that, too: write a ton of songs and record them all. Building something. I plunked around on my guitar for a few hours, and that was what I wanted to do. My brother wrote songs and played them for people. It was different.

But something was the same between Krill and Frankie Cosmos, always. Thinking too much about small events and objects. Cutting songs off too early, or writing them backwards. We both wrote brutal lyrics, and had early obsessions with dogs, and thought hard about our families and our friends and our duties and responsibilities, I think. Both bands were always desperate about age, too old and too young at the same time. It is warm and homey to hear Frankie Cosmos, for all of these reasons.

Of course, on Vessel, it is doubly warm and homey for me, hearing Luke drum. The way he drums, it sounds like someone swallowing, or speaking clearly. I can see him in my mind when I listen to the record, how he plays. Dainty, is how I would describe it—I wonder whether he would take exception to that description—but also somehow glottal. Luke is especially good on “Being Alive,” which is an indisputable banger, with those fills; plus, could be the anthem of our whole crew’s ambivalent mid-tempo emotional rock.

Vessel opens with an opus, “Caramelize,” which goes everywhere and folds in on itself and ends bitterly, a minor “heart gets tender.”

I felt like I could never figure out how to write a song (or a short story, when I used to try those, many years ago now) where anything happened or there were any characters. Frankie Cosmos’s kindred genre is clearly the comic book. Short panels that interlock and considerable gutters where there is another world, which is empty — entirely in your hands. On Vessel, these are songs for New York, and for walking, and for looking out of a bus window while you are growing up. There is a lot of sex, and age, and human body.

The tempos lurch. The indefatigable songwriting. Greta’s exceedingly good voice, which can go very high. The constant shout-outs to friends and family. There is perhaps a throughline for us in our endless thoughts about family, especially parents, and a straight-edgedness, but the straight-edge more of Jonathan Richman than of Minor Threat. There is a twee thrown-togetherness, and a world-creation. A gentleness I always envied, but could never keep ahold of. Greta has always been something of a hit machine. I was always amazed how she could play one string, even one note on one string, and it would be the whole guitar line for a whole rambling song.

All I ever knew or cared about in music was happenstance. The bands of the first half of the second decade of the 21st century, among whom I counted Krill as a member, were the ones I became fond of. Bands that played loud in Boston and built their own venues in Brooklyn and played off-kilter music with deep ethical commitments in towns across the U.S. Unaccountably, bands like Fat History Month in Boston, and Ava Luna in New York, and Blossoms in Charlotte, and Cloud Becomes Your Hand, and Warehouse in Atlanta, these are all somehow connected to me, even if nobody else would believe it. There is a thoughtlessness to it all, to knowing and having known Frankie Cosmos, and feeling connected to it. There was only ever friend-rock, for me. Even the bands and singers I never met, I only liked them because they became my friends, somehow. The only thing that can turn a stranger into a friend is grace. As someone I love recently pointed out, “Grace is not a strategy.”

Greta was a stranger before she was a friend, of course. But we were in a basement together, with 20 others, on the edge of the Bronx, a couple blocks from Yonkers. None of which meant anything to me, five and a half years ago, on my first big tour with my two extremely close friends. Greta had long pigtails then, and it was just her playing electric guitar and Ronnie Mystery on the snare drum, bass, and cymbal. The guitar was mostly single notes plucked and repeated, and the drums were all clicks and fumbling.

Also performing that night was Evil Sword, from Philadelphia, an amazing theatrical horror-themed punk-ish band. We had stumbled into someone else’s world, but somehow we fit in. This was probably one of the best shows on that first tour. Now, five years later, I remember that show, and the house show in Moscow, Idaho, where the three of us in Krill slept on three adjacent recliners, and Aaron from Krill’s guitar was so out of tune everyone thought we were doing some avant-garde thing. It wasn’t all that long ago, I guess, but it’s a lifetime away now.

The element of Frankie I latch onto most is the one that reminds me of being in my early twenties and reading Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov: the way those characters throb with new and totally consuming feeling every other sentence—how “every one of us is responsible for all men and for everything on earth,” but also when Ivan says, “I want to live and go on living even if it’s contrary to the rules of logic. Even if I do not believe in the divine order of things, the sticky young leaves emerging from their buds in the spring are dear to my heart; so is the blue sky and so are some human beings, even though I often don’t know why I like them.” Why would I write about whether it’s good or not? You can hear it for yourself. For me, it’s like whether a dog is good or not. The dog is of course a good dog.


(Photo Credit, left: Stephanie Griffin)

Jonah Furman is 28 and lives in New York City. He played in the band Krill from 2010-2015. Now he is an activist in the labor movement and would like you to consider forming a union at your workplace.