Michael Franks - Time Together (2011)

Michael Franks

Michael Franks Time Together.jpg

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Most people find mice to be a nuisance because they tend to make their presence known at the worst times. They chew through the wires of your electronic devices and they leave droppings on your kitchen counter.  But jazz guitarist and singer/songwriter Michael Franks looks at the little buggers and finds inspiration. On “Mice,” the fourth track on Franks’ new CD Time Together, the artist makes the case that humanity can learn something about gratefulness and humility from one of God’s smallest creatures.  It takes a premier lyricist to write a song about mice that would be remotely interesting. Franks proves throughout Time Together that he is one of the better songwriters working in the contemporary jazz field right now. Franks’ lyrics are witty, insightful, funny, wistful and poignant throughout this very solid disk.

Most people find mice to be a nuisance because they tend to make their presence known at the worst times. They chew through the wires of your electronic devices and they leave droppings on your kitchen counter.  But jazz guitarist and singer/songwriter Michael Franks looks at the little buggers and finds inspiration. On “Mice,” the fourth track on Franks’ new CD Time Together, the artist makes the case that humanity can learn something about gratefulness and humility from one of God’s smallest creatures.  It takes a premier lyricist to write a song about mice that would be remotely interesting. Franks proves throughout Time Together that he is one of the better songwriters working in the contemporary jazz field right now. Franks’ lyrics are witty, insightful, funny, wistful and poignant throughout this very solid disk.

One of this album’s major themes –as the title implies – is comings and goings. Seasons come and go. People come and go. Events come and go. Franks makes it clear, in his typically understated way, that the comings are always easier than the goings. A song such as “Now that the Summer’s Here” falls right into Franks’ stylistic comfort zone.  This playful ditty finds the vocalist embracing the return of the Summer Solstice. He sings about actively using the season’s long hot days and sticky, breezy nights to be – well – inactive. Franks’ lyrics are funny and vivid. The way that he employs active verbs such as oscillate, flirt, hung and struggling in a cut about his purposeful intent to be inactive strikes me as ironic and funny.

Franks also displays a willingness to address topics that would appear to fall outside of his base of love songs. Franks is not known as a political artist. However, on “Charlie Chan in Egypt,” he rages (in his typically understated and ironic way) about America’s military-industrial complex and how technology has transformed contemporary culture into a landscape overflowing with facts and opinion but sorely lacking in insight and true wisdom. He dedicates the track to the late author Kurt Vonnegut.

The pensive title track has departures as its theme. On this number, Franks reflects on his time with a departed loved one with a sense of appreciation for the time he had, regret that time has passed and hope that they will meet again. Franks uses his soft tenor deftly on this tender tune. Every emotion that accompanies grief comes through in the lyrics: “Why must the present/Turn to past so fast?/The disappearing now/I wish I had a golden bough/To bring you back somehow.”  The instrumentation on this track is sparse – primarily guitar with some piano, bass and percussion backing. That puts the emphasis on Franks’ vocals and the song’s lyrics, which is where it needs to be.

As a vocalist, Franks is somewhat of an anomaly these days. Most vocalists get attention by displaying a stratospheric vocal range or by screaming like angry 12 year olds. Franks is not a screamer. Understated is the word that best describes Franks’ vocal style, which is why I keep using it. In that regard, he reminds me of the jazz trumpeter and singer Chet Baker. Listen to Baker sing “My Funny Valentine” and “Everything Happens to Me,” and you’ll hear the similarities. Baker had that soft tenor that conveyed both vulnerability and aloofness. Baker’s tenor often trailed into a near whisper that forced the listener to be quiet just to hear what Baker was saying. In the same way, listeners often have to lean in to hear Franks, and that’s fine. A lot of singers who employ a multitude of verbal acrobatics do so to obscure the fact that they don’t have a whole lot to say. Franks seems confident that his lyrics can withstand a close listen. Time Together proves that Franks’ confidence is well founded. Highly Recommended.

 

By Howard Dukes

 
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