January 27, 2022

Wild Eyes is an absolute belter of a song, rising and falling in intensity over its duration, and boasting a chorus which really should see it in the upper reaches of the charts.

One area of the music industry which seemingly continues to go from strength to strength is that of the singer-songwriter. From the genre’s peak time in the late ’60s / early ’70s, it has continued to produce popular exponents across the decades, sometimes acoustic and sometimes with a full band, with Southampton-based Jack Francis being a notable new kid on that particular block. The likes of Paul Simon and Bob Dylan obviously cast a long shadow, but going back to the turn of the millennium, plenty of purveyors of this particular form have had their time in the spotlight, from the breakthrough of David Gray’s White Ladder album through James Blunt and Daniel Powter, who were both weighed down by their earworm albatrosses You’re Beautiful and Bad Day respectively. In recent years, however, the arrival of the unlikely figure of Ed Sheeran has effectively blown the roof off the singer-songwriter niche, by showing that even the most unremarkable-seeming individual can straddle the global charts if armed with a good knack for a song and a pleasing voice. George Ezra and others have since gratefully stepped into that breach, and there seems no reason whatsoever why the talented Mr Francis can’t do likewise.

At only nine tracks, with an average running time of around four minutes or so, this isn’t a long album, even by vinyl standards (it has been released in that format as well as CD), but it is a perfect length for a single sitting and to showcase the breadth of his work – because this is certainly no samey-sounding collection of earnest ballads. Indeed, the first influence to become apparent in the first two songs – the early singles A Little Love and Silver Lining – is the famously curmudgeonly Van Morrison. These days, it is difficult to love Morrison – partly because he has arguably released little of much note for three decades, but also partly because his misanthropic onstage demeanour seems to have reached such levels of disdain as to make his own band, as well as the audience, appear to be mere irritants to him. Although I’m sure he may be a perfectly nice chap beneath it all! In any case, Jack Francis is much easier to warm to, and those two tracks certainly evoke Van at his 1970s peak, with similar instrumentation and arrangement, albeit with a less similar vocal style. Both of these are excellent opening tracks, with the simple yet affecting charm of A Little Love contrasting with the more nuanced Silver Lining, which sees propulsively jaunty verses echoing George Ezra’s Shotgun merge into another peak Van Morrison keyboard-driven chorus. It’s an effective, and ear-grabbing, start.

The diverse nature of the album is best illustrated by the three-song run of Wild Eyes, Driftwood and Helena. Wild Eyes is an absolute belter of a song, rising and falling in intensity over its duration, and boasting a chorus which really should see it in the upper reaches of the charts. A great instrumental arrangement sees horns added to the mix as things get really kicked up a notch towards the song’s end. To these ears, it is the clear standout on the album. Following right on the heels of that, however, is the sparse Driftwood, its melancholic and reflective lyric given the perfect accompaniment of Jack alone on acoustic guitar. Utterly different, yet a marvellous contrast. But hang on, that’s a big-sounding band coming in for the riotous Helena, a song which Francis himself described as having come to him fully formed in a dream about Bruce Springsteen, though to me the overriding sound is of The Band, with the swirling organ evoking Garth Hudson of old. With three tracks on the bounce like that, there’s no risk of things becoming stale, and this is one of the real Jack Francis trump cards.

The album closes, not with the wistful reflection that one might expect from this sort of collection, but the infectiously uproarious nature of the self-deprecatory Cold Hearted Little Man, with Francis clearly relishing the casting of himself in the title role. It ploughs the same furrow that Dire Straits attempted with Walk Of Life and Twisting By The Pool, but rather than making you want to cut off your own ears and put them into a blender as those two pieces invariably do, this is something which is impossible to resist, but in a good way. It’s a masterstroke to close the album, and one which makes you want to go back to the top and check out A Little Love all over again.

It isn’t a perfect album – To Mean As Much To You and The Wheel are a little forgettable, sandwiched between Helena and Cold Hearted Little Man, but they aren’t bad songs by any means. The packaging design also leaves something to be desired, with the lack of a lyric booklet being a little disappointing, and the sleeve notes / credits being printed so small on the CD version that a powerful telescope would be a desirable addition! Those niggles apart, however, this is a very fine debut release, with Francis himself being no musical slouch to say the least, and contributing [consults telescope] electric and acoustic guitars, bass, piano, Hammond organ and percussion. That musical pedigree, coupled with his obvious ear for the best arrangement for a particular song, should see him in good stead for the follow-up. I shall be listening with interest!