Friday, April 20, 2007

Old School Folkie Roundup -- Ron Franklin and Fionn Regan

Nothing against the Iron and Wine’s and Jose Gonzalez’s of the world, but I prefer folkies who are a little more on the earthy side. If I want hushed and ethereal I’ll listen to Sigur Ros’s whalesongs, which I dearly love, and then walk around the ol’ corporate American cubicle farm singing “Eeeeuuuuu syyyy ohhh” and other inscrutable but mesmerizing things that deeply impress the IT infrastructure architecture workforce. The truth is that sometimes I just want the straightforward goods – sweet fingerpicking, gravel-voiced singers, and tales of love gone bad and ridin’ the rails and busking on the streets. This is the territory Bob Dylan visited again and again on his first couple albums, before he got all visionary. He still drops by to revisit the old haunts from time to time. And these two folkies, young ‘uns both, have deeply imbibed of that old school homebrew.

Ron Franklin – City Lights

Ron Franklin, itinerant guitarist and mandolin picker, mostly calls Memphis home. So it’s not surprising that his music is deeply influenced by Stax Records and gospel, Delta blues and Elvis Presley; that cross-cultural pollination of every genre of American music that’s ever been worthwhile. He covers Chuck Berry’s “Thirty Days” and The Carter Family’s “Lula Walls.” And he writes a batch of solid originals that are raw, unpolished, and rocking in an acoustic juke joint sort of way. Studio legend Jim Dickinson plays keyboards, and Al Green compatriot Willie Mitchell produces. Is it good? With that pedigree, you bet it’s good. Is it great? Nope. Franklin’s vocals are nasal and flat, which works just fine for early Bob Dylan, but doesn’t work quite so well when your songs aren’t up to the caliber of “Blowin’ in the Wind” or “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.” It’s a promising debut, but the jury’s still out.

Fionn Regan – The End of History

The only review of Fionn Regan I’ve read compared him to Donovan. Never mind that Regan is from Bray, Ireland. Yeah, I know. Ireland, Scotland, one of those kinda vaguely Celtic countries; it’s all the same, right? And never mind that Donovan eventually lost his mind to flower power and ended up writing songs about the lost continent of Atlantis and singing about electrical bananas and sunshine supermen. The man once wrote a song called “Epistle to Dippy,” for God’s sake, and he’s personally responsible for more unadulterated, fuzzily metaphysical hippie crap than any other “artist.”

So let it be noted that Fionn Regan sounds nothing like Donovan. He sounds like Mark Kozelek of The Red House Painters/Sun Kil Moon, and he plays guitar like Nick Drake. Look, that’s a pretty great combination. He’s been listening to a lot of early Dylan songs too, and he spins out great autobiographical folk narratives that wouldn’t have been out of place on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. He’s been reading Saul Bellow. His lyrics are weird, unsettling, packed with arcane details and startling metaphors and literary allusions. His debut is due out on Lost Highway Records at the beginning of June. I can already tell you that it’s going to end up on my year-end Top 10 list.

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