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Too Sweet for Pop? : In the Age of Alienation, Fresh-Faced Frente! Seems Blissfully Backward

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Twenty years from now, when filmmakers first begin to mine the early ‘90s for nostalgia-themed movies, the soundtrack album that results will be a loud, depressing roar of pain and anger, of grunge and gangsta rap.

The era will be best remembered in pop music for producing a snarling, screaming Hydra of rage and alienation, and, in some cases, outright sociopathy. The bulk of popular music today, like it or not, is simply no damn fun--in fact, it’s downright scary at times.

So what to make of the buzz revolving around Frente!, the fresh-faced, shiny-happy Australian pop group that appears Sunday at the Coach House? So innocent and naive-sounding, the group at times seems blissfully backward; it stands out from the pack like Pee-wee Herman in a mosh pit.

Upon first listening to the group’s recently released debut, “Marvin the Album,” one is taken aback by its simplistic minimalism, its childlike lyrics, the goofy sketches in the CD booklet that look like classroom doodlings confiscated by an irate teacher, and the picture of the band members screwing up their faces as if they just got a whiff of something most unpleasant.

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Singer Angie Hart sounds as if she’s 12 years old (she’s 22). Often, she’s backed solely by guitar player Simon Austin, whose playing could most charitably be called amateurish. At points, the album sounds like somebody’s home-made demo tape, or a recording of people serenading friends at a party, happily flailing away next to the chips and pretzels.

Not that Frente! is without merit or appeal. Hart is an appealingly guileless singer who shuns the overdone affectations utilized by many contemporary “stylists” in favor of her own, honest, pretty (if unsophisticated) voice. The album has an infectiously melodic pop instinct, and the cheery, overall sound is particularly fresh and engaging in the gloom-and-doom ‘90s.

“It’s meant to be pretty stripped back,” Austin said in a recent phone interview from a motel room in Hawaii. “We concentrate on the lyrics a lot, so we want them to be listenable. The way the songs are written, they really had to be played the way we play them.”

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Austin, the group’s chief songwriter, is a friendly, disarmingly cheerful bloke. The band’s press photo shows a smiling, gnomish Austin sitting Indian-style on a sidewalk, his baseball cap angled trendily backward, even if the effect makes him look more boyish than hiply menacing.

Were he an American, you’d half expect Austin to punctuate sentences with “golly gee.” As it is, he’s prone to laugh giddily at the writer’s observations, whether or not humor was the intent. Austin, 27, comes off as a Jonathan Richman from Down Under, sans the studied infantilism. He doesn’t have a whole lot to say, but he’s undeniably enthusiastic and likable.

“I guess I wrote my first really bad songs when I was about 15 or 16,” he said, laughing. “I still write bad songs, but I only submit the best ones, hopefully. I think we try to paint pictures of what humans really think of, the kind of stories that go on inside of people’s heads. We have songs that are about every kind of human experience. I guess we’re all hopeless, emotional romantics who like stuff about love and grief and joy and anger and all that sort of stuff. We don’t have songs about politics and stuff like that.”

Well, that’s only partially true. In the Austin-penned “Cuscutlan,” he writes, “I don’t want to die/I’m as innocent as anybody/I don’t even know how to spell revolutionary.”

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Frente! came together five years ago in Melbourne, a spontaneous formation of four people, including drummer Alistair Barden and bassist Tim O’Conner, who had little in common but the desire to make music.

“We met at a bar called the Putter’s Club, Austin said. “We’re all different sort of people, we don’t really hang out. We all like different music, and we’re all different ages. Angie and I are pretty close friends, but we all go our separate ways when the tours are over. Al is 29, and is a jazz player, really. Tim is 31, and he’s a punky kind of guy. Angie and I have our own things we really like. With that push and pull, you arrive at Frente!, I guess.”

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While most groups just starting to pull from the pack spend many idle moments fretting over career direction and the next marketing ploy, Austin seemed genuinely unconcerned where he was headed in the biz, adopting a “just glad to be here” attitude that seems to sum up the Frente! philosophy succinctly.

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“I think the most important thing is to continue surprising ourselves and write a lot of songs that hopefully are good. Career-wise, we don’t think about it a lot, because in a band, everything you get is a bonus.”

* Frente! appears at 8 p.m. Sunday at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. The Lemmings open, tickets are $15. Information, (714) 496-8930.


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