At first there was nothing, and then there was Froth. The group formed before any of its members had even played music together, before they even realized that playing music was something they could try. In reverse order of how it works for almost every other band, Froth got offered their shot prior to asking for it, when a friend who pressed vinyl in their hometown of El Segundo gave them the opportunity to create their own. Originally intending only to design the cover art for a blank 12”, the group figured they may as well actually pack the grooves with something. They started jamming as a joke, before it quickly became apparent that what they were messing around with sounded pretty good. They’ve been filling and releasing LPs for real ever since.
Now a trio following the departure of original member Jeff Fribourg, SoCal natives Joo-Joo Ashworth, Jeremy Katz, and Cameron Allen have put together in their half-decade existence one of the richest catalogs of their region’s notorious slacker-rock class. The band’s previous efforts, from their fizzy Burger Records debut Patterns to 2017’s more laconic Outside (briefly), have all spanned wide sonic ground. Froth’s charmingly unconcerned style first fixated on a buzzing psychedelia characteristic of other California garage rockers like Mikal Cronin and Ty Segall, making use of elevator music guitars, bright phasered arpeggios, and lackadaisical rhythms.
On their sophomore album Bleak, Froth dialed up the intentionality of their efforts without sacrificing on the energy; the songs were a bit more driving, a little less flaccid, but still lithe and sunny. Most notably, they seemed increasingly ambitious, pushing outwards where before they’d seemed more comfortable in the recursive. Third album Outside (briefly) at the time struck best the band’s balance of wandering and resurgent by further incorporating digital sounds to their palette, orienting their songs around deeper gravities that seemed to fulfill an ever-expanding promise of self-actualization. But now Froth have released Duress, their fourth studio full-length and second for Wichita Recordings, and have truly achieved the greatest expression yet of their sound: a lush series of left turns that increasingly has more in common with Radiohead than it does previous antecedents like Beach Fossils or the Drums.
Like every Froth album, Duress consists of sidewinding rhythms patched with exhibitory pockets. The band lays down trancelike rhythms that pop out like thunder from slow-morphing scuzz clouds, the rubbing of gradients imparting a tectonic pressure that hits like a contact high and remains like a massage. That push and pull of pretty and potent has always been at play in the workings of Froth’s compositions, but this time around the juxtaposed contrast is at its most awe-inducing. A number of songs kick up dust only to have them fall back down as snowflakes, and much else of what the band members accomplish on the album similarly strikes like magic. Duress marks the first time they’ve used harmonizers, samplers, and sequencers on an album, and the new set of tools unearths the possibilities previously dormant in their roaming tunes. Froth albums have always been expansive, but not until now have they been epic.
The album is led by lead single “Laurel,” a wound-up steel-string churn named after last year’s heavily divisive viral sound illusion. Rather than a fun bit of nostalgia, Joo-Joo considers the song as exemplary of the music industry’s grinding mechanisms: “I wrote that song right when the Laurel/Yanny thing came out, and that’s just how long it takes to put out a song for a band.” When I mention that it now makes for a good throwback, Joo-Joo fires back, “Yeah but it’s not supposed to be, it’s supposed to be cutting edge!”
The proverbial let-down of the “industry” is a recurring topic during a recent conversation with Joo-Joo and Jeremy. The two describe a culture shock coming from their origins in creative happenstance to then navigating the system with genuine aspirations. “The last album we did was the first one we did with a real label with a budget,” Joo-Joo explained. “We all had this expectation that everything was going to be super different now, that the whole process of being a band would be different. We approached it that way, and I think we kind of burnt ourselves out on that.”
The unexpected stagnation of often thankless touring almost led to the dissolution of Froth entirely. “I don’t even want to say this, but we kind of like softly broke up after the last album,” Joo-Joo revealed. “So I think all of our minds weren’t focused on listening to music that would benefit our band. The influences of the album were a product of that, just not really thinking about what kind of thing we were going to do next. I was just writing whatever song.”
Sustainability for Froth came from reframing their purpose to align with their newly unburdened artistry. “I don’t think any if us feel like ‘Oh, we’re career musicians’ anymore,” Joo-Joo said. “We all have other ways to make money now, so we’re not as concerned that we have to make ends meet every time we’re on tour. We’re more back to doing it as a hobby almost, just dudes having fun playing music.” The spirit of performance as play was emphasized by Duress’ surprising ignition point, a collaboration with the album’s visual artist Austin Redman.
“I did a project with him two years ago where he made an album cover with song titles and designed a live set, and he had me write songs and perform them live for it,” Joo-Joo said. As they had at their start, the opportunity to fill an existing blank put Froth back in their most natural state: “For us, it’s way easier to find new ideas or change the creative process from the ground up because the monotony goes a way a little bit.” That’s how the first song written for the record came together, and the shift in approach spurred inspiration for what the rest of Duress would become, including the new level of hands-on involvement the members had on the non-musical materials such as cover art and merch design. “Where last time it was more about ‘We need to make songs that sound good enough to be played on a big stage or whatever,’ our priorities are on a different, more relaxed place,” Joo-Joo said.
And yet a number of the songs on Duress feel like the band’s grandest to date. “Xvanos” opens with Jet-like shakers, piles onto them with ray beam guitar strokes, and then slow-burns from a whispered come-on to an In Rainbows-inflected waterfall, similarly textured and tempered. While every song builds up from a well-laid floor plan, the outros here specifically mark some of Froth’s best work. “Department Head” already established itself a highlight with its buzzsaw layering and Microcastle crawl, before then pulling out an air-raid siren in the fourth quarter and playing it to knock-out. Closer “Syndrome” starts as an autumnal shower of echoed drums and strums, and ends like a residual rainbow splitting apart into a light show of sustained reverie. It’s almost blindingly impressive, and then fades out like fog on glass.
Compositionally, the songs are even less structured than on previous Froth releases. It’s a case where the ensemble’s seeming limitations have become one of their most unique strengths. As Joo-Joo puts it, “Some other bands are better at writing different parts [verse, chorus, bridge, etc.], we’re better at just coming up with other noises to put in, it’s easier.” He continued: “I’ve been listening to a lot of electronic music, and I guess it justifies not doing any changes, and just having different dynamics shift.”
But where electronic music often takes shape around mathematically clean loops, Froth songs are built on fragments of instrumental wreckage, the kinds of musical ideas other bands would file away as scratch paper. The effect is dazzlingly unsettling, as on the five-minute “A2,” which sounds like sitting in the eye of a storm from a landing helicopter, cycling winds of arpeggiated guitar and swirling atmospherics into a blissful fury. “77” burbles a medley of sound bites over a ladder of bass that would be at home on a Thom Yorke solo record, playing the oddity for liminal pop. The idiosyncrasy seems to be as incidental as it does recalcitrant, but it’s actually an inherent result of their process.
“There was not a whole album written when we were recording it. Sometimes we would just hear something in the studio and be like, ‘Oh let’s just try to make a song out of this right now,’” Joo-Joo said. “So there were really five songs for the album and we just stretched them out.” Their patience milking further their songwriting run-off paid dividends, lending itself to a record you’re as likely to hold onto for its accentual detours as you are the strong central melodies.
Froth songs seem like they could go on forever, as though every next turn would bear out endless trail still worth treading, and truthfully the band sees completion not as a matter of reaching a defined conclusion but rather simply a stopping place. “We never really finish songs until we’re in the studio,” Joo-Joo said. “There’s just some kind of point where you’re like, ‘Oh, there’s really nothing left that needs to be there. This sounds good enough.’”
He paused, and then reaffirmed, “It’s pretty much just they end, I guess. They end themselves. Once there’s nothing else weird to fix.” What I deducted from speaking with the masterminds behind one of 2019s most satisfyingly offbeat releases was that trying to find a throughline in Froth’s formula is a lost cause. “There’s no method to writing songs for me,” Joo-Joo suggested. “Honestly if I could tell you a more productive way we wouldn’t take two and a half years to make every album.”
When I ask about the next one?
“It’s just so hard to think about the next album every time,” said Joo-Joo. “I really don’t think the next album clicks for us until we process the whole album cycle from before.” Jeremy then chimed in, “But I can guarantee it’ll probably be different, because that’s just the way it is for us.” Let’s hope Froth fail to ever pin down a routine for the years to come, because few bands sound as good never repeating themselves.