Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Songs, Plain and Simple

A little over two years ago while surfing iTunes for singer-songwriters, I discovered the Canadian, David Francey, and downloaded his song, Midway, for a playlist I was creating for Kathy.


David's music reminds me a lot of Lyle Lovett, not so much in subject matter as a propensity for making the fifth of the major scale the center of gravity.  He doesn't have much of a vocal range, nor does he have any affectations or pretensions or any distracting mannerisms to take you out of the richness of his natural gift with words.  It doesn't hurt, either, that he is blessed with a rich baritone voice and the expert collaborator, Craig Werth, on guitar and back-up vocals.

David Francey sounds like your average Joe with a decent voice and an easy-going manner.  Listening to him sing, you wish he was in your neighborhood, maybe next door, a guy to invite over with his wife for a pot luck supper on the deck at the end of a beautiful weekend.

Well, he's not in my neighborhood, and I know him only by his recordings, which I can listen to for hours on end.  I told Kathy last night that there is something totally comforting in the sound of most of his recordings.  The acoustical space reminds me of the Ian and Sylvan records of the mid-60s.  Their recording engineers set up equipment in old hotels with big rooms to reflect the sound if the guitar and autoharp. They worked for a sound that didn't sound "engineered." Craig Werth's guitar work is right out of the 60s, too, the same finger-style patterns we all learned for coffee house work.  It is simple, clean, immaculate, and right for David Francey's manner of singing.

Last night I thought of Gordon Lightfoot, the "dean" of Canadian songwriters when David Francey was growing up.  Lightfoot's recordings in the 70s seem over-engineered when I enjoy them now.  There is more interest in the instrumental backup than in the vocal delivery.  Lightfoot had a problem of vocal tension above middle C that became a liability as he aged.  The "sweet spot" of his voice was in the middle of the bass clef, and what a beautiful baritone sound he had when singing there.

Here's Gordon Lightfoot in 1979 singing his 1971 hit, "If You Could Read My Mind."  The melody begins in his sweet spot and rises to the range where he adds vocal tension -- clenched jaw, tightening throat.  For the next thirty years the sound was still recognizably his, but it was less and less listenable.

Francey's singing has a different technical flaw, the "Dylan haze" that comes from a general self-strangulation.  Bruce Springsteen and many others picked up this affectation from early Bob Dylan records.  If you've ever heard Dylan's "Tangled Up in Blue," you know the hazy sound I'm talking about.

I can't listen to Bob Dylan hour after hour.  These days, we put on the David Francey CDs an hour before dinner and turn the sound back when we sit down to our meal, and just enjoy the feeling that a friend came over with his guitar and swapped songs with us around the fire place.

Here's David again with Craig Werth in a radio studio in London, singing "Broken Glass."

If you come over here for dinner some time, chances are we'll still have David's CDs in the player.  And if you play "Midway" again, I suspect you'll remember this haunting image: "And the girls in the house of mirrors/combing their hair."

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