Robert Francis & the Night Tide


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Heaven is songwriter-guitarist Robert Francis' fourth album since 2007, but his first with new band the Night Tide -- drummer David Kitz and bassist Ben Messelbeck. Francis also acts as producer. The songs in this set detail a particularly difficult period in his life, when he not only lost his sense of identity as a person, but his work; the tunes strive to rediscover both. Musically, Heaven is all over the place. There are few references to his earlier work, which is a good thing. There are intimate, confessional songs such as the brief opener "Something Tells It Not To" and the skeletal single "Wasted on You," which aspires to Townes Van Zandt. "Baby Was the Devil" is a nearly anthemic rocker that crosses bright indie rock with E-Street Band-esque crescendoes and melodic choruses, complete with a tenor saxophone solo. "Love Is a Chemical," with its poignant hypnotic guitar hook and harrowing lyric, ride atop a rhythm section that insists on propulsion in spite of the melody's reluctance. It's one of the catchiest broken love songs --with a dreamy guitar interlude -- in recent memory. The gorgeous meld of indie pop, surf, and desert rock illustrate the reflective lost-in-the-wilderness feel of "Ukiah." See You Around" commences as a sparse singer/songwriter tune, but takes a sharp left turn at pop pysch as a truckload of reverb, additional percussion (by brother-in-law Joachim Cooder), organ, and calliope keyboard effects fill out the sonic portrait. The latter feel colors the blue-eyed soul of "Give You My Love." Take a listen to "Take You to the Water" and you'll hear a direct melodic line to the storytelling and melodic influence of Phil Lynott. Francis' sister, Carla Commagere, adds backing vocals to the baked, spacey "Blue," and the atmospheric, dreamy, American Gothic of "Hotter Than Our Souls." The latter contains the line the entire set hinges on: "If there's a road you are forgiven long as it goes." It's followed by a solo country blues in "I've Been Meaning to Call." Speaking of country, "Everything Will Pass" is an Americana killer that weds suggestions of both Van Zandt and Jeff Buckley. Francis' writing has never been more sophisticated, nor his guitar playing so canny and inventive. Some production choices are questionable, but can be overlooked given the unflinching honesty in these songs, and the guts it took to helm a session like this without previous experience. Personal pain is often a motivating factor in the act of creation. It can be difficult to maneuver, however, and result in maudlin excess. Heaven, with its temerity, craft, and ambition, succeeds at using difficult emotional terrain to approach art, in spades.

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