Review Summary: How to smile through hard times.
The ability to seek comfort in the old and familiar as an escape is a practice as old as time. There is little else like the comfort of an old sweater or vintage record as a remedy for modern malaise. To adopt the same old carefree mindset through indulgent nostalgia is a simple elixir for days that just seem to get harder and harder. But to engage in nostalgia as a transformative experience - to revisit those aural touchpoints with fresh ears - is another skill altogether.
Neal Francis understands this better than most. His sophomore effort, 'In Plain Sight,' is a joyously transformative banger of an album, dripping in vintage acoustic rock adornments. The fingerprints of Elton John, Little Feat, and The Marshall Tucker Band are all over this album. In it, pulse pounding piano and sensuous slide guitar sail from hook to harmonious hook with an easy, breezy confidence that belies the personal hardship that is explored within.
'In Plain Sight's' song structures, instrumentation, and arrangement boast a vintage flair that's almost as colorful as your dad's old barn-kept Camaro (the one with the mis-matching paint). And when it shines, it sounds just as cool and tenacious - rumbling with anticipation of a better tomorrow. The album is a new dog that excels at old tricks: the harmonies are punchy, but sweet. And the chord progressions are simple, but subtly sharp, and consistently satisfying in a way that few things are in these turbulent years.
The stresses of our modern era seem to fall away as Francis' ruthless proficiency and comfort in classic sounds plays on full blast in the album's lead single: "Can't Stop The Rain." Because when the world is collapsing around you, your lovers slamming doors in your face, the only sane reaction is to flip your hair back, bite your tongue behind a broad plastered grin, and pound on the piano; ferociously seeking solace in hook laden verses:
"You can't stop the rain,"
"It's always comin' down,"
"It's always gonna fall,"
"But you're not gonna drown - oh no no..."
The track is nothing short of a gem - and if you take nothing else away from this record, be sure that it's these four minutes - ideally crackling through old speakers as just one more week of bad news threatens to push you down into despair. It isn't, however, the album's only highlight. The big, powerful opening chords of "Prometheus" call for your attention with the confidence of a man rocking a paisley leisure suit without a hint of irony. Later, the layered vocals and warping electric guitar grant a psychedelic tinge to the head trip titled: "Sentimental Garbage" - itself a knowing nod to the cathartic melodrama on display on 'In Plain Sight.'
While Francis consistently adorns the edges of these honky-tonk jams with just enough color and groove to grant it an extra dimension of allure and introspection, the results aren't a uniform success. The record really loses momentum in it's second half. After the psychedelic highlight "Sentimental Garbage" the record has little new to say. It begins to feel less like a heady dose of curative nostalgia and more like a paint-by-numbers affair. The hooks grow flatter by the end and Francis' croon begins to deflate.
However, despite these limitations, Francis has found some success in producing one of the more earnestly hopeful and emotionally honest 'pandemic records' of our day. Itself quickly becoming a cliche, 'In Plain Sight' works as a pandemic record because it engages with the troubles and sorrows of our collective trauma behind a veneer of the timelessly cool and classically comforting sounds of our past. One thing drives out another, and this too shall pass. But music?
Music lasts forever.