Written By: Heather Wysocki
Label: Atlantic Records – Rating:
There are few things that guarantee creative success more than growing up in a bohemian household. Somehow, all that patchouli and macramé seems to attract interesting, famous friends and provide enough free time for strumming or painting or dancing, all of which influence the mop-headed children that live there.
This sort of charmed, wildflowers-in-the-backyard life hit Robert Francis hard, and he hasn’t completely recovered. Here, that’s a very good thing.
“Before Nightfall,” though a departure from the heavily instrumental-oriented work of his 2007 debut “One By One,” is still a solid folk album, perfect for taking a drive in a Prius down the PCH.
Raised by said New-Agey parents in Los Angeles, Robert Francis grew up surrounded by said famous friends, including guitar great Ry Cooder, who gifted Francis his first axe at age nine. A little later on, Red Hot Chili Pepper John Frusciante took him on as his only – yes, only – student.
Whether Francis’ talent for creating perfectly listenable folk-pop albums came from his teachers or from sticking too many wildflowers in his hair as a preteen is unclear, but his skill is undeniable.
“Before Nightfall” combines Francis’ guitar chops with his considerable mixing and producing experience (a whole bunch of compilation albums, plus September’s Pete Yorn-Scarlett Johansson disc “Break Up”), bringing a bunch of folk songs into the radio-ready pop universe.
“Junebug” is the perfect first single for this genre, a song that would make even Conor Oberst smile a little bit. Like that gloomy crooner, Francis combines creative lyrics with beautifully orchestrated piano-guitar-drum backings. Welcome to summer in Malibu, in music form.
The influences his famous profs probably introduced him to are here, as well, ranging from the somehow sexy organ sounds of Dusty Springfield to the one-two drum-guitar punch of The Hollies. Even Elvis makes an appearance here, in the form of Francis’ sad-but-I-sound-great-doing-it voice in “Hallways,” bringing a real sweetness to the track.
Francis’ diverse influences and jealousy-inducing teachers can only do so much, though; the rest of making a good album has to come from Francis himself – with maybe a boost from producer Dave Hardy, the guy behind Oasis – and he makes good.
Though the kid (he’s 21) could probably be labeled some sort of prodigy, or at least the 20-something version of it, he doesn’t act like it on “Before Nightfall.” There’s guitar to spare, but it never overwhelms, a happy surprise considering the sometimes overwhelming licks of Cooder and Frusciante (and every other guitar god).
A disc that lacks nothing doesn’t happen too often, but Robert Francis has created it. Instead, the long-haired dude should start thinking about what he could subtract, and here’s hoping it’s the Janis Joplin worship. Francis’ voice is great when he takes the John Mayer route, singing in the alto he was born with.
But his brief romps into falsetto territory are as scary as Janis’ temper after a binge, bringing songs like “Climb A Mountain” and “Do What I Can” from pretty to grating.
Pretty and inspired, Robert Francis’ sophomore release is the love child of Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, an all-American taste of how great guitars can be when they’d just sing along with everybody else every once in awhile.