Stewart Francke's Motor City Serenade is a daring exercise in musical anthropology, cultural license, and Detroit aesthetic savvy. Francke has been on the scene a long time, regarded highly in Detroit, but basically underappreciated elsewhere. That may change with the issue of this album, released by Great Britain's Zane label -- the crew that released great titles by Delaney Bramlett, Ellis Hooks, and Eddie Hinton. Motor City Serenade pulls out all the stops creatively. There are layers of singers -- including the gospel group Commissioned, Barb Payton, and living rock legend Mitch Ryder -- elegant yet edgy strings, spiky, taut horns, funky keyboards, and popping guitars in a mix so utterly open and ringing, it saturates the listening space in a swirl of color, texture, and grit. But Motown isn't the only sound at work in Francke's mix; there is also the romantic sophistication of Brian Wilson and the wild abandon of Jack Nitszche. The title track is a lullaby to Detroit, romantically name-dropping some of its heroes, from Marvin Gaye and Nolan Strong to techno's "holy trinity" (Juan Atkins, Derrick May, and Kevin Saunderson) -- all of it fueled by Motown's Funk Brothers backing Francke. HIs singing voice has grown deeper and wider over the years. It contains a kind of reckless maturity and nuance that is the badge of experience and beneat- the-skin expression. He's doesn't worry about anything but getting the song to be true to itself as song. He's got the necessary soul chops, but he is also a fine rock singer -- when he and Ryder cut loose in "Upon Seeing Simone," over a rollicking horn section, they send chills down the spine. But sonics and vocal prowess only tell part of the story; Francke's true gift in his ability to write words so utterly and poetically impure, and melodies that project them from the mix to the consciousness of the listener. For Francke, backyards, street cruising, the triumphs and tragedies of family, and fleeting love are all wrapped in the same bundle, all cards in the same slippery deck. He can find the divine in the heat of a kiss, or the supernatural in glare of city lights on wet pavement; he can discern the measure of morality in a broken heart. Tracks like "American Twilight" lament the craziness of the nation in the beating of a man on a suburban roadway. "Deep Soul Kiss" expresses the need to continue in relationship in the midst of struggle, all the while acknowledging the power of eros to transcend. Yeah, this is real people's poetry: it carries within it the rough mystery of the urban street and the mundane magic of suburban epiphanies and doubts. And it's as romantic as a muggy summer night. This is music that's more interested in asking pertinent questions than looking for quick-fix answers. And in its quest there lies unintentional moral instruction as in the utterly moving slip hop of "You Better Get to Know Your Broken Heart." Motor City Serenade is a celebration of contradictions: the beauty found in the ruins and history of a city that has lost its mooring but not its will to survive, the tense experiences of the people who inhabit its surroundings, the anxiousness found in searching for pearls of wisdom and excitement in the grind of everyday life in what was once the city that articulated the American Dream. And Francke has brought them all to bear here, allowing the voices of doubt, faith, regret, despair, temerity, and desire to speak for themselves in a truly exciting set of 13 songs that is as tough, tender, and ass-shaking as the city it reflects.
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AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek