Robert Francis - Strangers in the First Place
Record Label: Vanguard
Release Date: May 22, 2012
Los Angeles' Robert Francis is in love with words. While that's probably not a startling statement for a singer-songwriter, take the following anecdote into account. In late December of last year, Francis relocated to Bolinas, CA to write a novella. He chose said location because one of his heroes, Richard Brautigan, wrote "Watermelon Sugar," in that very same city. So while most musicians sit on their beds and pluck an acoustic guitar in the hopes of a good melody, Francis relocates and writes novellas. Not your average run-of-the-mill songwriter, eh?
And Francis' love of words – and songwriting – is on full display on Strangers in the First Place, his Vanguard Records debut, and his firs studio offering since 2009's criminally overlooked Before Nightfall. The disc opens placidly with "Tunnels," a slow-moving affair that lifts gradually over the course of three minutes. It is a decidedly amiable opener and a nice starting off point. But the best is still yet to come.
Lead single "Some Things Never Change," is another tranquil and gradual affair. Opening with acoustic guitars and the words, "You and I, as time began, in the moves, in the howling wind, bitter line, bitter end, my enemy, my only friend," it unravels what is most assuredly a breakup ballad. Truth be told, there isn't much about it that is entirely inventive or original, but hot damn, if it doesn't knock the cover off the ball. Potent, passionate and deeply panged, it is everything a breakup ballad should be. This sentiment is revisited on the guttural hymn "Star-Crossed Memories," in which a deeply tortured Francis lays it all on the table, before diving into a searing guitar solo.
Francis is a gifted guitar player who studied under John Frusciante and that talent is evident in leaps and bounds on Strangers in the First Place. Whether it's the crackling "Perfectly Yours," or the sweetly harmonic "Heroin Lovers," there's a swerve and zest at work here that's hard to imitate and even harder to dislike. When he wants to be forlorn and tender, he does it as well as anyone, as evidenced on the languid valentine "I Sail Ships," the supple slow-burner "Wild Thing," and the meandering "Dangerous Neighborhood."
For all its peaks, Strangers in the First Place reaches its apex on the dramatic and enveloping "The Closest Exit," a taut and tense masterwork that hits at the very heart of what makes Francis so special. His pain is real, palpable and and deeply felt. In short, they just don't write songs like this anymore. So while California continues to churn out singer-songwriters by the minute, the best bet might just be Francis. One listen to Strangers in the First Place proves exactly that.
I was anticipating giving this a listen today very highly; the chaos of the day unfortunately didn't permit it. Apparently, it's worthy of my anticipation. Hell or high water-- with the rain lately up here, probably the latter-- I'll be spinning this one tomorrow.