Michael Franks: Time Together

The feather-voiced jazz singer, mellow as ever, and still clever.

Michael Franks

Time Together

Label: Shanachie
US Release Date: 2011-06-14
UK Release Date: 2011-06-14

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.


Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.