The Waking Hour is a record of subtle wisdom and distinction, a collection of folk songs that observe life from the eyes of an exceedingly humble everyman. Though he has called Canada home since the age of 12, David Francey writes songs that owe more to the rural folk traditions of his native Scotland than the Canadian provinces. The Waking Hour, an acoustic recording adorned with mandolins, fiddles, and banjos, is one of those blink-and-you’ll-miss-it albums. It doesn’t so much ask for your patience as it insists that you approach it with all guards down; when it does reward this unbiased attention (not always, but often), its payoffs can be unusually powerful.
Francey’s story is unusual and encouraging: after working for many years as a carpenter in Quebec, he’s only now, in his early 50s, beginning his career as a professional musician. His last two albums—2001’s Far End of Summer and 2003’s Skating Rink—earned him Juno Awards, and now The Waking Hour has been nominated for a possible third. The kudos have been well-deserved: Francey, whose Scottish-accented voice is sobering and fatherly, recalls the disarming simplicity of fellow Canadian Ron Sexsmith (“The Waking Hour”) and the emotional topography of roots figurehead Steve Earle (“Ashtabula”). If he’s not as consistently strong and incisive as Sexsmith or Earle, Francey is capable of intermittently rivaling them. The Waking Hour, in particular, isn’t a thoroughly perfect listen; it includes a number of lesser songs that make the stronger inclusions stand out.
As his song-by-song liner notes attest, Francey is, above all else, a documentarian in three-minute increments. He casts burrowing glances at himself, at strangers, and at prevailing social moods, at once surgically precise and attuned to the larger picture. The American travel tale “Highway 95” showcases his astute use of imagery, recalling “Three crosses in a copse of trees / A long way from Calvary” and meeting a Southern belle whose “words are jewels in her mouth”. “Ankle Tattoo” observes the wandering lives intersecting at a bus station—of which Francey’s is one—and uses images as character speculation: “There’s a girl with her legs crossed, got an ankle tattoo / It’s an ugly reminder in four shades of blue”. When Francey turns to politics, he’s merely a reflector of the times, almost staunchly refusing to come down on a particular side: “Wishing Wells” charts a conflicted opinion of Timothy McVeigh’s execution; and “Fourth of July” ponders the real motivations behind some of the 9/11 remembrances (“It’s September and I can’t help but think that / It looks like the fourth of July”).
Recorded with a small core of supporting musicians in Nashville, (including Kevin Welch, Kieran Kane, and Fats Kaplin), The Waking Hour sounds as crisp and lucid as Francey’s songs, its folk and bluegrass infections translating easily onto the page. Occasionally, Francey’s melodies have a tendency to be redundant, especially since they don’t stray from echoing the traditional folk songs of both Scotland and the U.S., but Francey’s emotionally topical lyrics are often the redeeming factor. A few songs, notably “Tonight in My Dreams”, “Gone”, and “Wanna Be Loved”, while pleasant enough, come off as calculated, by-the-numbers coffeehouse folk; yet Francey repeatedly proves that he’s better than those two songs would otherwise indicate.