FrankieThis debut by Sunderland five-piece Frankie & The Heartstrings was produced by the legendary Edwyn Collins. Throughout the disc his production brings a gorgeous clarity, a great bass sound and plenty of separation between the instruments. Those elements, however, seem to be the band’s biggest strength.  Here they are with a brilliantly produced disc featuring a bunch of songs which aren’t always instant enough to deserve such technical brilliance. The bulk of their work resembles – but isn’t quite up there with – the best tracks by Kaiser Chiefs or Franz Ferdinand, but often, The Heartstrings manage to be much warmer than fellow Mackems, The Futureheads.

‘Photograph’ opens the album with atmospheric oohs and sparing guitar work, though this quickly gets replaced by spiky indie-pop. It might want to make you jump and down (albeit briefly) and showcases a decent amount of energy, but closer inspection uncovers a weakness in the song writing department. A one line chorus provides a refrain, while a stupidly repetitive second half wears thin very quickly. ‘Ungrateful’s slower approach highlights Frankie Francis’s vocals as being an acquired taste. While there’s still nothing hugely memorable here, the pace suits the band a little better. While, as before, the end of the track descends into repetitiveness, it’s ultimately saved by some great drum work from Dave Harper; while no Stewart Copeland, he’s certainly pretty handy with a hi-hat.

‘Hunger’ employs a ringing rhythm guitar part (one which is somewhat pleasing), but set against some rather ordinary drums. Well placed oohs provide something of a hook, but that’s as far as it goes. There’s no real chorus – and one would have proved useful here, if not essential. The rhythmic qualities – matched with Frankie’s slightly irritating vocals – call to mind early Kaiser Chiefs, only without broadness in the lyric department. All the same, its sunny feel (and the fact that those oohs lodge inside your head after a while) make it an obvious choice for single release. ‘Want You Back’ opens with a drum riff which tips the hat to sixties girl bands and Phil Spector, but what follows is a really horrid song – easily the album’s worst – being full of parpy trumpets, over which Frankie wails gratingly. There could have been a half-decent arrangement here, but it falls flat once the vocal kicks in…it’s all too much.

There are a few tunes here that represent a marked improvement, however. With a busy bass riff, ‘It’s Obvious’ has an edge that’s not often present elsewhere. The rumbling bass sound combined with some occasionally angular guitar work shows the band to be a tight musical unit, even if lyrically things are still a bit thin in terms of complexity.  As one of the album’s darker numbers, if nothing else, it ensures this album isn’t all jangle and bounce. ‘That Postcard’ works very well indeed, thanks to Steven Dennis’s solid approach to the bass and Frankie Francis’s slightly quirky vocal, which sits very well. In the left speaker, most of Michael McKnight’s guitar leads resemble disjointed noises as opposed to a proper riff, hinting at a love for early eighties post punk/new wave . A lack of chorus here is slightly disappointing given the strong musical foundation, but overall, it’s very good. The closing number ‘Don’t Look Surprised’ also fares better than most, featuring busy drum work (particularly in the cymbal department), an upfront bass with a tone which recalls early New Order, plus an urgent vocal. The claustrophobic brass noise creeps in towards the end, but not in a way which damages the song.

Throughout the album, the tight rhythm section of Steven Dennis (bass) and Dave Harper (drums) bring consistently good performances (helped no end by that Edwyn Collins knob-twiddling), but often, looking beyond that, ‘Hunger’ feels lacking in places. Repeated plays allow some more of the bands material to slowly leave an impression, but despite showing a great energy and confidence, their hooks aren’t always as sharp as you’d hope for a band who’ve had time to hone their talents before unleashing their first album.  Patchy it may be, but its handful of strong numbers certainly make it worth picking up if spotted at a bargain price, especially in the case of Franz Ferdinand and Kaiser Chiefs fans.

Watch the video for ‘Hunger’, featuring the superb Robert Popper:

February 2011