July 13, 2011
Holler If Ya Hear Stewart Francke
I first met Stewart Francke back in 1999, at Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band’s Detroit stop during their reunion tour. I shared that evening with other friends, old and new, but Stewart left a deep impression on me, in no small part thanks to the fact that he’d just come out the other side of a stem cell treatment for leukemia, the same disease that killed my dad back when I was five. I knew Stew had two small kids of his own, and I felt a kinship with both him and the little ones who were lucky enough to still have them in their lives. His sweet smile and gentle voice—his demeanor has always reminded me of Jackson Browne’s—didn’t hurt, either. I had no idea then what that voice was capable of.
I’d met him in cyberspace before that; we were and are both members of a small email list of folks who share common bonds of politics, culture, and family. But I hadn’t heard a note of his music until he sent me a copy of Swimming in Mercury, the first album he made after his illness and treatment. It was, not surprisingly, steeped in themes of mortality, family, and love, and it’s still my favorite of all his albums. He’d made a half-dozen records before then, and he’s made almost as many since—better ones, by most accounts, and ones that expanded his musical palette from singer-songwriter and California rock to blue-eyed soul. But Swimming in Mercury is still the one closest to my heart—the best record Brian Wilson and Todd Rundgren never made. It was also full of songs I could imagine my dad singing, if only he would have lived to sing “Keep Your Faith, Darling” to my mom, or written “Letter from Ten Green” to me and my sister.
That personal connection means that Swimming in Mercury is unlikely to drop from the top spot in my own Stewart Francke canon, but his latest, Heartless World, has quickly moved into second place, and is (if I try to be objective) the best thing he’s ever done. His singing—always strong—has never been better, nor has his songwriting. More importantly, the arrangements and the production are the best he’s ever achieved, making for seamless transition among different sounds and textures. For instance, the slashing guitars on the roadhouse rocker “Born in a Fever” sit side-by-side with the sweet horns on the reflective soul ballad “Snowin’ in Detroit,” with its sophisticated chord changes, and the transition between the two is both seamless and natural.
And it may be the first album on which he’s fully achieved his goal of “making music that sounds something like if Jackson and James Brown(e) were brothers.” Jackson is most clearly found in “Sidewalk Dimes”and “Givin’ it Up;” James is all over “You Want What You Don’t Got (And You Don’t Want What You Got)” (which features Amp Fiddler on clavinet). I could be all circumspect and politically correct about it, but fuck it, let’s call it what it is: the white and the black, the non-funky alongside the funky. But lack of funk isn’t the same as d’voidoffunk, nor is the funky merely funky, you know? Francke understands, plays, and sings not so much as if there is no difference (which would be foolish), but as if there need not be any opposition (which is righteous).
But what do you expect from a cat from Detroit if not making sense of contradictions both real and assumed? Detroit is the home of Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, Mitch Ryder, the MC5, the Stooges, P-Funk, Alice Cooper, Bob Seger, Madonna (don’t you tell me she’s all New York, now), Eminem, Kid Rock, and about a zillion more, and Francke embraces and embodies and contains those multitudes as well as anybody. Which is to say he makes those multitudes, and more, his own. The breezy “Sam Cooke on the Radio” brings together everything from its inspiration’s gospel soul to the best of Chicago’s early 1970s jazz-rock, along with a bunch of sounds in between that I can feel but can’t quite put my finger on. “Heart of a Heartless World” brings together the earnestness of mid-1980s Springsteen with the lightness of the Boss’s later output, along with a subtle dose of arena rock (presuming that “subtle” and “arena rock” aren’t mutually exclusive; if you hear this song, you’ll realize they’re not).
Speaking of subtle, Springsteen himself shows up on the album’s opening track, “Summer Soldier (Holler If Ya Hear Me),” but you wouldn’t notice unless you pay close attention. Francke and Springsteen’s voices are so simpatico that you might not notice the difference, but once you do, the song—from the perspective of a dying soldier in Iraq or Afghanistan—takes on a weight it wouldn’t without Bruce’s presence. The Gulf and Afghan War soldier lives and breathes (and dies) in the the shadow of the Vietnam soldier; a “summer soldier” alongside the Winter Soldier of 40 years ago, and a song that would be plenty heavy without Springsteen’s voice gains added impact, both historical and emotional, with it.
For my money, though, the best track here is “Boo Yah/Take My Mother Home,” a roaring one-chord vamp featuring Amp Fiddler and the great Mitch Ryder that, as Francke writes in his liner notes, “condenses a couple years of pain and confusion into about 32 bars.” It’s a microcosm of the whole album: a white kid from Saginaw, who’s lived in the Motor City for more than a decade, dives deep into the experience of losing his mom and dad over the course of a few years, swims in the funky stew of rock and soul, and embraces the whole messy, funky, painful, and joyous thing. Show me another song in which a man promises he’s not gonna grieve his mother and father no more, with backup vocals hollering “if I had me some fuck you money, I wouldn’t have to talk to you,” and I’ll show you a map of Detroit.
I’m hollerin’ backatcha, Stew. Hope you can hear me.