Robert Francis’ musical history informs his sound and that’s a very good thing. From being given his very first guitar by Ry Cooder to being accepted as John Frusciante’s only student, there’s a path littered with great musicians creating lasting moments. They’ve clearly made an impression on the young Francis, along with his own family. His mother sang Ranchera songs, his father produced records and played piano, and both of his sisters sang. With that list alone, there’s already a varied list of influence and an upbringing to be envied. Strangers in the Right Place fully capitalizes on it, conjuring up the images of everyone from Tom Waits to Jeff Buckley to DeVotchka, yet all the while remaining distinctly Robert Francis.
Every track on Strangers in the First Place brims with confidence and a level of intelligence and understanding to match. These songs are spectacularly written, arranged, and performed. Starting with lead-off track “Tunnels” all the way through closer “Dangerous Neighborhood”. When “Tunnels” begins, it’s quite clear that Francis has studied his influences well and crafted them into a coherent whole that not only feels unique and original but makes sense, which is a feat more impressive than it might sound. As that track goes on more layers are added to it and its climactic point is a searing guitar solo, proving that Frusciante taught Francis well. That he chooses to complement the solo with swells of wordless vocals only speaks to how effectively this album is composed.
“Some Things Never Change” turns down the grandeur aspect but plays up Francis’s penchant for road-weary folk numbers. This is music made for long road trips through the plain lands but instead of merely evoking an image, it also captures attention by sounding so complete. There’s moments throughout that suggest a much less bombastic U2 (in the best way possible). When he hits a lone falsetto note on the word “same” it’s almost enough to break the listeners heart. “Perfectly Yours”, the ensuing track, continues that dusty wide cinematic aspect and is punctuated by small piano runs, a lap steel, and some country-tinged electric guitar licks to outstanding effect.
“Alibi” is a perfectly constructed work that remains fascinating throughout despite its modesty of sound. It’s a perfect campfire song at heart but wouldn’t sound out of place on the radio or a Cameron Crowe soundtrack, which could be said about nearly every track on Strangers in the First Place which is a very, very good thing. Starting with the lyrics “I won’t forget the reasons I went so far to love you. A man is most important when he’s unmoved by separation and tries to match the tempo in which death succeeds creation. Burning there to keep you, all I needed was some patience,” it becomes very clear that Francis is a songwriter of the highest caliber and has already carved out a niche of his own at the frighteningly young age of 24. However, it also sets up the rest of the record for potential disappointment. Unsurprisingly, Francis never opts to take that exit and continues on a surreal level of excellence for the duration of Strangers in the First Place.
After the near-perfection of “Alibi” a piano announces the arrival of “Eighteen” before being joined by an almost atmospheric array of varied instrumentation. His outstanding lyrics never once waver throughout the course of any of the songs found on this album and that’s a point driven home by “Eighteen” and then again on “Star Crossed Memories”. When the banjo starts in on “Star Crossed Memories” and the piano brings everything even closer together, it becomes a transcendent moment and elevates the record to even greater heights. Then, when Francis’s baritone cracks into a gentle falsetto, it becomes surprisingly moving once again. When that same falsetto is complemented by a backing female vocalist towards the end of the song it’s perfection. On an album of unbelievably good songs, “Star Crossed Memories” stands out as one of the best—and that’s no small praise.
The next three tracks, “It First Occurred to Me”, “Heroin Lovers”, and “I Sail Ships” all also offer contained stand out moments and keep the record both welcoming and engaging. On “It First Occurred to Me”, there’s the compressed muted trumpet solo and a small string arrangement coming in and exiting at just the right moments, keeping itself brief enough to remain effective. While it also offers one of Strangers in the First Place‘s more plaintive vocal melodies, it’s one of the most complex in terms of arrangement and lyrics and is an absolute joy to listen to. Current single, “Heroin Lovers”, brings Matt Mays’s “Cocaine Cowboys” to mind with its alt-country tendencies but stands firmly on its own two feet. There’s telecaster twang that suits the laid back mood perfectly and the quietly swirling organ in the back makes it a perfect choice for a single. Then, “I Sail Ships” channels Wilco at their rootsy best. Even the way the vocals are delivered suggests Francis spent some time studying Tweedy & co. Yet by the songs end it still feels distinctly like a Robert Francis song, partially due to the brilliantly schizophrenic string blasts that cut in and out of the end of the song.
“The Closest Exit” and “Wild Thing” both offer spectacular moments. In particular, the melody and lyrical performance in “The Closest Exit”, which rivals Bob Dylan in his prime, stands out. Then that influence gets thrown out of the tour bus window as Francis nails a grandiose vocal performance on the chorus that absolutely soars. It’s one of several outstanding pieces to an incredible song. “Wild Thing” reins things in a little bit after the slightly bombastic burst of “The Closest Exit” but loses none of the records immediacy in doing so. It’s certainly a more down-trodden moment but it retains Strangers in the First Place‘s intrigue nonetheless. Francis’s vocal syncopation here, especially, is perfectly placed. It also sets up “Dangerous Neighborhood” perfectly.
After the pace gets slightly slowed by “Wild Thing”, “Dangerous Neighborhood” starts with an even slower introduction that builds into a perfect mid-tempo back roads pace. As the song progress, it builds and adds subtle layers on top of each other to create something that feels like an appropriate end chapter to a particularly excellent book. When the chorus of backing vocals kick in around the half-way point the song enters into sublime realms. Francis continues to prove that he’s one of the finest young lyricists throughout “Dangerous Neighborhood” as well, providing a welcome shot of genuine authenticity into the contemporary music landscape. Ending the song and the album with the line “my mind’s a dangerous neighborhood”. If Strangers in the First Place is a drive through his mind, then I’d take the risks with that neighborhood every single time. At the end what Strangers in the First Place stands as is first truly great low-key alt-folk record of 2012.