If you visit the website for Michael Franks, you will see two pictures of the singer and songwriter with a beloved dachshund, Flora, including an appeal for a no-kill animal shelter and an undeniably charming photo montage of Flora (the beast with Franks at a piano, the pup dressed as Santa Claus, you get the idea), who passed in 2010. Franks grins while he holds her, his graying mustache and soul patch nicely matching his V-neck sweater and his kindly rimless glasses.
Michael Franks, you get the very clear sense, is a generous and sweet man — a man of mellow and a man of sentiment, of subtle tastes and gentle humor.
If you know Franks’ music, then this all fits together almost too well. He debuted on Reprise in 1976 with The Art of Tea, backed by no less a hip and soulful band than the Jazz Crusaders, laying out some seriously funny and cool double entendres in his classic “Popsicle Toes” (“You’ve got the nicest North American this sailor ever saw / I’d like to feel you warm Brazil and touch your Panama”). But Franks really made his living a bit later, becoming the feather-voiced embodiment of smooth jazz vocalizing. With a penchant for lite-funk grooves and sambas, Franks made music that floated on a bed of taste, but the kind of creamy background music that was the wrong kind of tasteful: the dentist’s office kind, the elevator music kind. To paraphrase Woody Allen, Michael Franks got so mellow that he ripened and then rotted.
Or maybe he didn’t.
His new recording, Time Together, is his first in five years, and it’s not a reinvention or transition. I’m not here to proclaim that Franks has finally shed his softer-than-seemingly-possible sound or that those who dislike this kind of smushy-wushy stuff should give him a listen. However, I am one of those anti-smooth people, and I can tell you that the joys of Michael Franks — not the mellow-osity, but the intelligence and the strong melodies and the warming cleverness of his songwriting — are still alive and well. If you can forgive some of the production fluff here, you’ll find a set of smart, well-crafted songs. Endearing even. Yes, the man rescues puppies, but there’s more to him than “nice”.
The collection is dominated by tunes with a Brazilian flavor. Jobim is Franks’ hero, no doubt, and he manages to create an original imprint in the style — with his gentle voice and sparky wit in useful contrast. The opener “The Summer’s Here” should have jettisoned the cheesy fake bird sounds and string synth at the start, but it is otherwise a genuine gem. The pulsing groove propels a gently punchy melody, and the lyrics are Franks at his very best: “In slow motion I’m reborn / I need a week to mow the lawn / I eat dinner with my flip-flops on / Now that the summer’s here / With my chores, I only flirt / Hung in my hammock reading Kurt / Struggling to remain inert / Now that the summer’s here.”
The bossa nova “Samba Blue” very cleverly sets up a long-ago romance that blossomed in Paris, then finds the narrator revisiting the city and remembering this old love, only to reveal that she is still by his side. “We’re together again”, Franks sings, “by the Seine”. Nice. “One Day in St. Tropez” is another bossa but one a bit more blue in melody and lyric. And it’s better also in that it features Greg Cohen on acoustic bass, Gil Goldstein on acoustic piano, a tasty acoustic guitar solo by Romero Lubambo, and a single percussionist. The spare treatment works well here, setting up Franks’ subtle travelogue of a story.
Though Franks was born in California and certainly gives off a strong Golden State vibe, he always writes well about New York. “Summer in New York” suffers a bit from its plastic Chuck Loeb drum programming, but the bubbling groove holds some great lines: “Postprandial, we’ll wander through the Met / Just like we used to / Odds are, King Tut still summers in New York.”
Franks is at his most genuinely jazzy on a duet with singer Veronica Nunn, backed by Alex Sipiagin on trumpet and Billy Kilson’s drums. “My Heart Said Wow” swings with a gentle lope, and it wins you over easily: “While it’s true that this ditty / Begins in self-pity / I can promise the ending will be more ascending / ‘cause I’ve made some revisions / Since our sweet collision / And how, just look at me now.”
For all the pleasure I get from Time Together, there are places where Franks reaches too far or tries to be too cute as a songwriter. “Mice” is a lovely minor theme, but the lyrics personify mice and suggest that we have a lot to learn from how they are “always grateful when the slightest little crumb drops / Finding dinner in the dreadlocks of a dust mop”. Too clever by half, even though Mike Manieri’s work on vibes is lovely. “Charlie Chan in Egypt” also puts me off, despite the nice acoustic band that accompanies the tune. Franks writes about his depression about the country’s wars and the effect they’re having on “a broken generation”. Michael Franks is ill-suited to a protest song.
At his best, Franks’ new work should remind you of what you liked about his early tracks — those clever and coy 1970s songs that seemed both smart and sexy, sentimental and clever. When Franks sings that “I’d rather be happy than right”, you sure do want to forgive him all the schmaltz that his smooth jazz approach carries with it.
And when he sings to the dachshund Flora on the title track, man, his mellow is perfectly mixed with sadness and hope. Greying mustache and soul patch, California roots, a love affair with Brazilian music, rimless glasses, and a strangely compelling voice that makes him sound a bit like John Mayer’s hip dad: it works.
It’s not cheesy — it’s just beautiful.
// Notes from the Road
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