Thank You Mr. Churchill

Peter Frampton

Hip-O / New Door Records, 2010

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


If forced to choose just one word to describe the career trajectory of Peter Frampton, I would have to go with “interesting.”

How else to describe a guy who was on the radio at 17 with The Herd, on the big stage at 20 with Humble Pie, and on the ropes as a solo artist through his mid-twenties—until he abruptly delivered the best-selling live album of all time (1976’s Frampton Comes Alive!), and then went through one of the most spectacular megastar flame-outs in rock history? And then saw his flat-lined career shocked back to life by a gig as a sideman in David Bowie’s band? What a long, strange trip it’s been, indeed.

In the years since Bowie pulled him back into the spotlight in the late ’80s, Frampton has toured and recorded steadily, a working musician whose latter-day theater-sized following brought him back into the environment that produced Alive in the first place and seemed much better suited to his laid-back, unpretentious melodic rock approach than stadium shows. Asked in recent years what his favorite album from the second half of his career has been, his answer has often been this one.

The awkwardly-named Thank You Mr. Churchill is in fact one of Frampton’s most personal and autobiographical albums. One of the chief joys he’s experienced in the post-stardom stage of his career is a lack of expectations or pressure on him to be anything in particular to anyone, whether a label head, an A&R person, or a fanbase. He’s simply himself and people can take it or leave it.

A casual listener who had ignored Frampton for the 33 years between the poppy, uninspired Alive! follow-up I’m In You and this album might be startled to find that, after a subdued, scene-setting opening verse, the first four songs here carry a decided hard rock edge, with big, chunky riffs and aggressive soloing. For someone who’s paid attention to more than just the radio-hits period of Frampton’s career, though, it’s not surprising at all; he was an in-demand guitarist before he became a singer-songwriter, and he was a guitarist again in the mid-’80s after his solo career disintegrated. He’s always loved a good riff and he’s never shied away from playing heavy, as anyone who got past the ballady singles off my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 Alive knows well; some of the best songs on that album are the ones where Frampton cuts loose and rocks out.

After opening the album by thanking British Prime Minister Winston Churchill for the opportunity to be born—his parents having survived the Blitz during World War II—Frampton digs in with riffy second track “Solution,” again propelled in heavier directions by drummer Matt Cameron of Soundgarden. Cameron’s bludgeoning approach is featured on half this album’s tracks, along with appearances from other A-list guests including keyboardist Benmont Tench (Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers) and veteran songsmith/writing partner Gordon Kennedy.

The other thing that Frampton’s liberation as a recording artist allows him to do is make the third song on the album a showcase for his son Julian, whose band was the opening act for Dad’s 2019 farewell tour. “Road To The Sun” is a big expansive number that feels—no coincidence here—rather like some of Soundgarden’s more melodic offerings. Julian does a nice job on lead vocals and Dad is obviously his number one fan, as he should be.

From there the proceedings get progressively more diverse, for better and for worse. “I’m Due A You” has a strong, melodic chorus, a jamming extended outro, and a lyric that never quite gels. Then the nostalgic “Vaudeville Nanna And The Banjolele”—telling the story behind Frampton’s very first musical adventure as a child—offers a warm and wistful change of pace before “Asleep At The Wheel” brings the lights down for a dark, downbeat blues.

If range is what you’re looking for, the second half of Churchill delivers, beginning with the seven-minute instrumental “Suite Liberte,” which moves from a sleepy acoustic opening segment into a fluid, tasteful electric jam. “Restraint” is quite a concoction, opening with a complex acoustic melody that works up a steady churn as the rest of the band comes in. The guitar playing is terrific, even if the blues-shouter vocals feel like a stretch for Frampton.

The album’s main single “I Want It Back” delivers more fat, fuzzed out riffage, a beefy rocker that Frampton has a great time playing. Next up is “Invisible Man,” a sincere, heartfelt tribute to the unsung session-player heroes of classic Motown that features members of The Funk Brothers while also demonstrating that, among his many talents, middle-aged Brit Peter Frampton is not a soul singer. The album closes with Frampton lamenting “it all goes by too fast” in the somber, nostalgic solo acoustic number “Black Ice.”

Thank You Mr. Churchill was co-produced by Frampton and Chris Kimsey, the engineer on his early solo albums. As much as Frampton seems to have wanted to have it be a concept album, the concept feels like a loose one, introduced and touched upon here and there without establishing any sustained musical or lyrical motifs.

As has often been true, Frampton is a better performer here than he is a writer. The songs vary from solid to very good, but the guitar performances are uniformly stellar, a world-class player at the top of his game. The best part is, at this point in his career Frampton no longer had any reason to care what people like me thought—he could just play what he wanted to play, and that exhilarating freedom is written in every one of these grooves. For the listener, that guarantees an experience that’s never short of—there’s that word again—interesting.

Rating: B

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