Although Dion Dimucci has spent the last decade making slick born-again Christian albums, you wouldn’t know it from the first track on Yo Frankie, his long overdue shot at a secular pop comeback. Eager to reclaim his turf, DiMucci updates songs like “Runaround Sue” and “The Wanderer” in the form of “King of the New York Streets,” and it works magnificently. As guitars spring and snarl around him, and a pumping piano pushes the tempo, DiMucci, 49, brags (“People call me the scandalizer/The world was my appetizer/I turned gangs into fertilizer”) and even engages in a bit of scatting; his voice hasn’t lost any of its street-gruff charm. His admission at the song’s end that his old street-corner boasts were fueled by “cocaine lies” — an allusion to his early drug addiction — is uncomfortably close to a Nancy Reagan-antidrug slogan, but the conviction behind what he sings only makes “King of the New York Streets” that much more riveting.
Had Yo Frankie maintained the standard of “King of the New York Streets,” it could have been a killer return to form for one of New York’s greatest contributors to pop music. As it stands, it’s merely pleasant, just like most of DiMucci’s post-Sixties solo work. The bane of Dion’s solo career — even his Phil Spector-produced Born to Be With You — has been banal production, which blunts the edge of his reformed-hoodlum voice. The Dave Edmunds-produced Yo Frankie often repeats that mistake. Essentially a Dion DiMucci and the News album, it comes with all the spineless instrumentation and ersatz-doo-wop harmonies of a Huey Lewis single. The songs — many written by DiMucci and lyricist Bill Tuohy — are lightweight, melodically and lyrically, with the title track, a lame “Wanderer” rip-off down to its piano riff, being one of the worst offenders.
What makes this doubly frustrating is that beneath the gloss lies a potentially wonderful album. Dion’s voice, equal parts sandpaper and honey, is perfect for Tom Waits’s late-night ballad “San Diego Serenade” and Diane Warren’s “And the Night Stood Still,” a jubilant paean to everlasting love that avoids corniness, thanks to his impassioned reading. That voice also triumphs over lite-FM radio fare like “Tower of Love” and “I’ve Got to Get to You.” Besides “King of the New York Streets,” the other outright triumph is “Written on the Subway Wall/Little Star,” a reportorial reminiscence of the past (“Basement lights and gangway fights/Hydrants flooding August nights”) that’s as musically taut as anything Dire Straits came up with before their arena days. Halfway through the song, Paul Simon enters to sing a wistful verse of the Elegants’ 1958 hit “Little Star,” to which Dion later adds, “You can’t go back/No, you can’t go back.” Like that exchange, Yo Frankie walks a fine line between past and present and reveals that despite the usual obstacles, Dion DiMucci is still capable of wandering with the best of them.