Francine, the Boston quintet led by singer / songwriter Clayton Scoble (ex-Poundcake), have downshifted their sound from the spit-shined power pop that defined it around the turn of the century. They’ve become purveyors of chilling spectral pop. Now things operate by cautious design, in incandescent streaks of painted movement. Flares of guitar echo and manipulated tape, a rhythm section caught in self-sustaining Pavlovian flux. The chime of steel strings and clench of bass frequencies caught in a gentle spin cycle. Airshow, the band’s third LP, details the fruits of this gradual transition with a photographic kind of proof, its cumulative effect dreamlike and disorienting.
So instead of relying on the big meaty hooks of past triumphs like 2000’s Forty on a Fall Day, Francine is now hunting mood and banking on the power of reinforced texture. It’s a tricky move, no doubt, not as instantly agreeable or as obvious as the feisty rock rave-up, but one that has even more satisfying returns over time and commitment. Down from the high-altitude rush of a song like “Trampoline”, down even from the sweetly motored resignation of “Fake Fireplace Things”, the so-called “catch” songs on Airshow—those that could represent the album as singles—hibernate within their would-be roles. “Zeros and Ones”, “Connectionless”, and “Ugly but Rakish” are thrilling in their own anti-thrill way: they don’t cater to wham-bam rock craves, but to subtler gestures of concentrated repetition. This is a band with more Tortoise than T. Rex on the brain.
While the band can take most of the credit for this concoction of circuitous style (the climactic multi-instrumental build-up of “Penn Station” is a highlight of the record), Scoble’s songs are typically top-notch. He’s always been one to combine elegance with obscurity (as a wordsmith, he’s both clever and evasive), and the soft-focus template of Airshow makes for prime exploitation of that talent. The songs are populated with references to electronic interference, batteries and ring topologies, still and moving photography, highways and train stations, optical illusions (naturally) and crystal-clear reminiscences, all of which enrich the record’s enigmatic content.
Scoble delivers his imagery-burdened code like fantastical bedtime stories, coddling the words in his mouth. The cinematic scenes are ones that would drive a lump into the throats of most—“So you learned to shift left-handed at night, / So you could memorize her fingers in your right” and “The grackles gather like luckless offspring” from “Day Sucker” and “Storrow Drivers”, respectively, are good examples at the lovely sadness at the heart of these songs—but whatever lovesickness is left in Scoble’s voice is overcome by the beautiful haze the band drapes over it all.
This all adds up to a peculiar and fascinating pop record, one that hides its hooks in haunting affirmations of melody and a very un-rockist show of monkish restraint. A band at the beginning of its career could never have made a record as subtle and secretive as Airshow—their inexperience, their young drive to bang the music into shape, would have bred something much more self-conscious. Francine has played the rock band role expected of it, and done it well. Now there are more evasive things that need chasing.