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Greentrax Recordings CDTRAX377

This is David Francey’s tenth album, but amazingly the first to find its way to my CD player. Thus it is, that I feel a little peculiar in being given the honour of reviewing this CD: I feel a bit like an historian asked to write a history of World War Two and having to start at the dawning of 1942. And with only the haziest idea about how the world arrived at this point!

But I am sure David Francey would not have it any other way: he does not want to keep preaching to the converted. And my-oh-my, he has his fair share of them: he has a real legion of fans! So it is time for this artiste to gain even more new converts. And has he made one of this reviewer? Well, read on, dear TLT subscriber! And let me first, in considering my answer, begin at the beginning.

David’s unusual biography has become quite well-known. Born in Kilmarnock, Scotland in 1954; emigrated as a tiny tot with his family to Canada in 1958 but returned in 1963. But Canada was to win the day, and the family moved back in 1968. David spent most of his employment history working in construction, and then 14 years ago at the age of 45, he began his startling rise to prominence: an astonishing journey from manual labourer to award-winning folk troubadour. (A refreshing success story in that I can think of one or two folk troubadours who have alas done the journey in reverse!)

So one starts off really wanting to like this guy. You have the distinct sensation that this is a fellow who has walked the hard yards and paid his dues. Thus he is not some kid who has got lucky and fallen out of the cradle into a recording contract.

So before I listen to the CD, I thumb through the marvellously legible liner notes. They largely consist of the lyrics of the 14 tracks, plus (most interestingly) details of the date each song was written and the various towns in North America where they were penned. (This last aspect proved great fun for a Brit like me, as I was able to get out my map book of Canada and find the lot of them: small towns though some of them were.)

And then I started reading the lyrics. Big mistake. Don't do it folks. Not even with song writing giants.

Why not? Well, because a song lyric is not a poem: never has been and never will be. Even the work of great song lyricists will be found wanting without the melody. It is the melody that gives them the kiss of life: here – as with most song lyrics – Francey's lyrics seem somewhat underwhelming.

But with outstanding musicians around him, as in this album, the whole ball-game changes, and the result is indeed impressive. His voice is a winning and warm one – I love the fact that he still has the dust of the Ayrshire coalfield on his teeth – and some of his studio accompanists make up for his lack of instrumental brilliance by each providing truly virtuoso technique. It will be years before I next hear mandolin, bouzouki and mandola played better than here by Darren McMullen. No space to mention the other guys, but some are also top-notch.

The subjects for his songs run the gamut: I was particularly impressed with American Blues, which is as direct an assault on the hypocrisy of Uncle Sam's society, as I could ever imagine. Very brave, given that he now has a big fan base in the USA.

There is only one dud song in the 14, so choosing my favourite track is more difficult than I would normally find it to be. I will plump for his Long Long Road, not least because it will lend itself to lots of drunken chorus singing, where the singers can really give it some welly.

Any reservations? Yes.

At his gigs, Francey charms his audience with his laid back spoken introductions, that sometimes last as long as the song! What a pity they were not evident here: the album would have so benefited from being recorded live.

And there was that one song that rubbed me up the wrong way: Cheap Motel. It bugged me on first listening, and does still now, just having heard it for the third time. It is a somewhat stereotyped view of cheap motel chains.

But you are wrong David. Cheap motels are not like that. Last year I spent two full months in the USA, staying exclusively every night in their cheapest national motel chain, Motel 6. Stayed in 20 different ones, when driving from Boston to Maine to Seattle and from DC down to Florida. Without exception, I never found a single receptionist with “eyes looking through you, harder than stone”. They were all kindness personified, even though paid a pittance. And nor did I find “the ice machine, she's broken down”: golly was I grateful for the excellent ice machines in the Motel 6 establishments in places like Raleigh NC, with temperatures well into the 90s outside!

Last week I stayed at a 5 star hotel in central London. Give me the North American “cheap motel” every time: you meet a better class of person there.

But David, avoid easy targets like that one, and I will be happy to call myself a fan.

Dai Woosnam

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This album was reviewed in Issue 98 of The Living Tradition magazine.