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Fray doesn't need rock to get rolling

The band plays at its middle-of-the-road best at the Greek, until it begins to take itself a bit too seriously.

July 20, 2007|Mikael Wood | Special to The Times

In the first show of the Fray's two-night stand Wednesday at the Greek Theatre, guitarist Joe King introduced a new tune called "Dixie" by explaining that "Every good rock band needs one country song."

As rock-band adages go, this one sounds pretty serviceable. But what's it got to do with the Fray?

A depressingly dependable source of midtempo piano-pop ballads, this popular Denver-based outfit is no rock band; though its music is inarguably handsome, it lacks the action and electricity that courses through even hand-me-down junk like Lenny Kravitz's stuff.

And despite a vaguely twangy lead lick by guitarist Dave Welsh, "Dixie" isn't really a country song. No wonder the band played it in front of a video depicting lonesome stretches of heartland highway: How else were we supposed to know?

On the list of problems a group can encounter, not being a rock band doesn't rank very high; the Pussycat Dolls, for example, haven't suffered much. It's a problem for the Fray, though, because you can tell how badly these guys want to be in a rock band, and that prevents them from focusing on what it is that they do well, which is the mellow, folk-pop schmaltz of their two hit singles: "Over My Head (Cable Car)" and the title track from their hit debut, "How to Save a Life."

Rhythmically breezy and melodically rich, these songs sound great on the radio, and they sounded even better at the Greek, where a group of enthusiastic young ladies joined the band onstage, enhancing "Over My Head's" corny, graduation-theme vibe.

But elsewhere the Fray seemed to abandon its lightweight appeal in an attempt to convince us how serious and meaningful its music is, which resulted in a string of dull, dreary selections, including "Heaven Forbid" and "Vienna." Another new song without a title left the audience not knowing whether to sit or stand. If you've ever imagined what Maroon 5 would sound like minus the sex, Wednesday's show offered the answer.

What's most troubling about the Fray's tedium is that frontman Isaac Slade and his bandmates should know better: As a surprisingly excellent skiffle-band version of Shakira's "Hips Don't Lie" reminded us, they now inhabit the colorful world of Top 40 pop, where songwriterly ambition is no excuse for humdrum material. And they've written a couple of tunes that hold their own in that heady universe. So why do they insist on masquerading as Starbucks-set small fry?

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