It never ceases to amaze me just how many vastly underrated songwriters and performers there are out there. The blinkered masses suck the marrow of life from innovative, intelligent writing and musicianship by being guided solely by the inane sermons of faux leaders behind the desks of the nation's record companies and radio stations. Their religion is not mine, I do not recognise their dogma, and I will not chant their mantra. Seemingly record company executives and decision makers know Jack Shit about what is good, what is right, and what is honest.
Francis Albert (Frankie to his mates) Machine embraces and embodies all of these qualities, and this acoustic lead compilation of (as the title suggests) singles and rarities espouses his idiosyncrasies perfectly. With his subtle blend of left field and classic pop songs, his traditional approach to song writing coupled with a clearly defined, individual and unique take on life Frankie has concocted and maintained a sublime set of songs that read as well as a full album as they do a separate collection of singles and songs. His witty lyrical twists are in places reminiscent of Billy Bragg, and indeed when he utters "...I get turned on by girls with boys names..." during 'I Didn't Understand it so I Gave it a Name' you can almost hear the Bard of Barking cooing on backing vocals.
It would be impossible, and indeed wrong, to review this record without making two specific points, firstly these songs reflect real life; they do however reflect it from a rather unique perspective. Francis Albert Machine sees the world in a way that not many others do so, and that in itself is thoroughly refreshing and certainly something to be cherished, and secondly the whole set is held together by a strange kind of glue in the form of a batch of segue's, snippets, experiments, ideas and developments. The resultant piece is a continual presentation with none of the bothersome two second gaps so often found in-between songs these days. It listens brilliantly, but it didn't like being ripped to my mp3 player. That's the price of technology I suppose.
Found between these snippets of life are a bunch of songs that do the title 'songwriter' proud, every song has a purpose, a meaning and a resolution. They tell stories in a way that urban 'poet' Mike Skinner (whom I heard on Radio 2 this week claiming that he was (and I quote) "skilled in the art of writing") could only dream of. This isn't to say that Frankie should be compared to The Streets; he is in a different class, a different genre, a completely different field. Frankie delivers a catalogue of honest, open, direct and frank stories, tinged and tainted with the stench and stains of inner city life, where Skinner witters on about some old crap or other. There really is no comparison.
Musically, there are tastes of Cohen, Mitchell, Bragg and Tracy Chapman; lyrically he is more difficult to pin down, either he is an amalgamation of who knows how many fine writers (and I'm not just thinking songs here - add Irvine Welsh, Roddy Doyle, and Douglas Coupland into the mix with pleasure), or he is a completely unique entity who should be influencing others.
If you do nothing else this week, then I suggest you use the time you're spending recovering from the seasons festive over indulgencies to download some of the tracks from Frankies website, they're a treat to rival any Cadbury's Advent Calendar - and I'm sure you won't look back.
For the likes of Francis Albert Machine to survive in the increasingly cut-throat world of popular music it will take a little effort on all of our parts, check out the songs, smile, and buy the record - it's for our kids, and our kids kids.
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There is a warming aura about split singles, about musical offerings that are put out under a blanket of sheer exuberance, self belief and swaggering confidence; when the desire to have your music heard stretches beyond the financial constraints of both your own, and the record company's budget. That feeling that somebody somewhere is so convinced that you will love their record that they are willing so share their much coveted seven inches of vinyl with another gang from the other side of town. I donít believe for one minute that it is a sign of weakness, I wouldnít suggest that these bands are running before they can walk, but I am saying that it is clear that on this record we have two bands who are both something special in their own right. They espouse a clear desire to be heard, thatís bad if youíre talentless, but itís great if you happen to be in either of these bands. Split singles may be sneered at by the big boys, but remember, it was the mainstay of 2 Tone, it was the embodiment of Stiff and the champion of Cherry Red. There should be more of them...
Mercury Tilt Switch lift a sound from the north-western seaboard of America and relocate it to their native Dundee with ease, searing guitar, pounding rhythm and pained vocals all come together effortlessly and make their heady way towards the apocalyptic climax. Itís for certain that these boys are working up a sweat. Itís not laid back, itís certainly not filed under Ďeasy listeningí, it is however direct, brutal and bruising. Itís no nonsense, and as the kids say Ďit kicks assí.
Flip the vinyl and you will find yourself in come down wonderland. The A Forest were the reason that I rooted out this record, and I certainly wasnít let down. In an ethereally Stereolabby kind of way they caress the senses and soothe away the rigours of life. I donít profess to understand the lyrics, it seems that ĎAí-Level French was mightily successful in Eastern Scotland, but in that same way an instrumental can set the scene, the vocal tracks here evoke scenes of tranquillity that are hard to ignore. Think dreamy, think gentle luscious scented breezes, think overwhelming calm and youíre halfway there, add in vocal lines that Elizabeth Fraser would kill for and you have hit the nail on the head.
They say that music is often a reflection of your surroundings, if that is the case then Mercury Tilt Switch and The A Forest must be living at completely opposite ends of Dundee. Their respective offerings may be wildly different, but they both have one obvious theme running through them, and that is the fact that here are two bands, not from a popular place, embracing their intellectual and musical sensibilities and serving up two fantastic audible moments.
I implore you to listen; itís your New Year promise.
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