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'Show Business' Punk

[whitespace] Frank Portman This Is About Him Now: Mr. T's Frank Portman goes solo on new album.

Frank Portman steps out on his own from MTX, but the punk roots are hard to hide

By Gina Arnold

DR. FRANK--A.K.A. Frank Portman--is the lead singer for a 10-year-old Berkeley-based power trio called the Mr. T. Experience (and often referred to as MTX). A Gilman Street progenitor and one of the first bands signed to Lookout Records, MTX was certainly instrumental in creating the punk-pop sound and sensibility that the world at large currently credits to Green Day.

In fact, MTX plays faster and much more verbose songs than Green Day does. MTX doesn't sound like the more popular band, but certainly there is a similarity in their simple, hook-laden songs and their melancholy (rather than angry) outlooks on life.

With the help of bands like these, the Gilman Street scene--and its unofficial adjunct, Lookout Records--pioneered a kinder, gentler punk-rock world that wasn't about anger, violence or negativity but about creating a fun DIY community.

The main difference between Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong and MTX's Frank Portman is that Armstrong writes (with great success) about the solipsistic I-Am-the-Center-of-the-Universe-and-I-Am-So-Mad world view of adolescent boys, while Portman writes exclusively about girls.

MTX has penned thousands of songs about relationships, so it's no surprise that Portman's first solo record, Show Business Is My Life, consists of one long series of love-gone-wrong ditties. What is surprising is how strong the album is.

MOST OF THESE SONGS could easily be sold to a mainstream pop act--one of those poppy "young country" performers like Shania Twain, or a teenage star like Britney Spears, for example. Were they rerecorded in a less intimate and lo-fi manner and redone with a thousand overdubs, they could be hits.

Now, whether Frank himself would think that's a compliment is another matter. Show Business Is My Life boasts a few more ballads and a slightly more acoustic sound than MTX's albums. Clearly, Portman wants to highlight his very good lyric writing, so only a few songs here--like "She Turned Out to Be Crazy," "I'm in Love With What's Her Name" and "Knock, Knock (Please Let Me In)"--really rock out.

The other songs use much less punky tempos and beats, ranging from the bossa nova sound of "This Isn't About You Anymore" to the country stylings of "Bitter Homes and Gardens." (Portman has always indulged an unfortunate love of punnery, which comes out in titles like that and in the "Knock, Knocks" series of knock-knock jokes.)

Like the work of many Lookout bands, some of this evinces a real retro sound. It's steeped in sha-la-la background vocals and Dave Clark Five-type rhythms, not to mention the occasional dip into lounge rock. Songs like "I Made You and I Can Break You," "Two Martinis From Now" and "Population: Us" employ garage-rock elements but also evoke the newer "bachelor pad" trend.

What makes Show Business sound more modern than that is Frank's imperfect vocal style--he has that true punk-rock-era lack of self-consciousness about being the owner of a mediocre voice, and the record's production style is much faster and looser than a real '60s LP.

Where Portman excels, of course, is at lyric writing. The opening track, for example, the very MTX-like "She Turned Out to Be Crazy," tells three woeful but familiar tales of various bad relationships like this one: "Eleanor was 34, she had a husband she didn't want anymore/She had a plan. She'd get in bed. She'd call him in and then I'd hit him on the head."

Always, he can't resist a quick lyrical joke, but Portman's light touch and lack of angst are part of his great appeal. This is a guy for whom punk rock has been fun since day one. And if you're a listener who's had the same experience, you'll have to appreciate his completely unsolemn approach to the genre.

THE FLIPSIDE OF A COZY, homegrown recording like Dr. Frank's is the new self-titled record by international superstar Ricky Martin. Martin, a Puerto Rican who is a former member of Menudo, is the biggest-selling Latin artist of all time, and this is his first English-language record.

Imagine Miami Sound Machine fronted by a member of the Backstreet Boys, and you have the sound in a nutshell: faintly Latin-inflected pop music, with tons of cha-cha-chas and lyrics like "Hola, amiga, shake your bon-bon!"

Seriously, you can't imagine two male solo artists who are farther apart in spirit than Martin and Dr. Frank. To begin with, Martin doesn't write his own songs, drawing instead on the talents of professional songwriters like Desmond Child, Jon Secada, Eric Bazilian (of Hootie and the Blowfish) and some lady named Madonna, with whom he co-write this album's set-piece Mexican-tinged ballad, "Be Careful (Cuidado Con Mi Corazon)."

Also, unlike Portman's, Martin's experiences with love are all good. Maybe Dr. Frank should move to Puerto Rico, because relationships seem to go much better there. Martin's world is filled with gorgeous ladies with Spanish eyes who are livin' la vida loca. They all seem to do the tango at carnivale and drive men insane.

Last year, Martin's official theme for the World Cup, "La Copa del Amor," redone in English here as "The Cup of Life," was a megaselling No. 1 hit in every country except America. With its idiot-chorus of "Go! Go! Go!--Ale Ale Ale"--it's the not the greatest song in the first place, and even it were, it doesn't really hold up two years after the event in question. Like everything else on this record, it sounds cheesy and clichéd--two things that Dr. Frank's record never stoops to. Gee, I wonder which one will sell more?

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From the May 27-June 2, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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