Won’t Let You Down
9 Track, LP (2012, Independent)
Western culture is grouse. Western culture can co-opt its own version of any other culture, real or imagined, and it all makes sense more or less within the confines of “western culture”, indeed for many that is the sum total of “culture”. Once you have learnt some of the rules of western culture, you’re pretty much ready to co-opt. There are no laws around the way you do it, but there are many interesting ways to regard the way it’s done. That in part is what critics and audiences are for: to do the regarding.
The first album Francolin have made is a remarkable challenge, not a challenge to like, but a challenge to comprehend or categorise or even describe. “Alternative Australian folk indie pop Scandinavian Swedish twee indie tropical twee Melbourne” are the tags on Bandcamp, nobody’s fault but commas would have been handy – “tropical, twee” no thanks (no, the appropriation of the word “twee” by the twee’d is not the same as taking back “queer”; it’s always an insult) but tropical twee? Just maybe.
I’ve merely been enjoying Won’t Let You Down for a number of months now without much of an effort made towards comprehension. It has often reminded me of Haircut One Hundred, a British group from my childhood whose very limited recorded output I always enjoyed, and similarly never really understood (then more recently it hit me that they somehow reminded me of ‘The Pina Colada Song’, but that’s OK). HOH were a pop group whose work was generally drenched in what passed for palatable (“white”, though one of them was Blair Cunningham) pop funk of the day. Francolin don’t have someone manipulating their career, as far as I know, but like HOH they have a pop-funk sound – with some nods to highlife, I guess, though trebly guitars and horns aside there’s nothing much like those other supposed appropriators Vampire Weekend about them.
And highlife aside, at least two songs herein could almost be classified as Salvation Army band-style rags. But Haircut One Hundred had a fabulous drummer, an assured smoothness, a name that did them no favours, some incredible pop songs – so ultimately they were Francolin 30 years earlier, the only difference being that with HOH someone at Arista had a word in producer Bob Sargeant’s ear and said “make sure Nick Heyward’s sorrowful, pastiche lyrics are entirely indecipherable”.
With Francolin, Staffan Guinane’s vocals are clear as a bell and his lyrics a cross between, well, Paul Simon and Michael Dransfield. Paul Simon’s ghost is revealed in the declamatory and forthright descriptions of places, people or things in perfect telegrams (not merely because ‘If You’re On Fire’ starts out a bit like the “stand back, don’t jump” beginning of ‘Save The Life Of My Child’ on my favourite Paul Simon-related record, Bookends).
Dransfield is summoned in funny, tetchy dreamy ideas like, “In my mind's eye/Like a patched up pirate/The depth of it escaped me.” But Guinane, Simon and Dransfield are three young men casting a critical and withering eye on their world and their part in it (eg. some fairly randomly selected Dransfield I wouldn’t be surprised to encounter in a Francolin song: “Our wishes flew up about/Daylight like small birds and were/Drowned in the tepid tea of conversation”, which to me resonates with the “you and me are all in waves” lines from Francolin’s ‘War on Summer’). Paul Simon (b. 1941) has had his career ups and downs on the way to getting old. Michael Dransfield (1948-1973) died from a careless or even deliberate drug overdose at 25. Both were voices of their generation.
Guinane is a wit; the songs are delivered precisely, with immense affection and care, by a stunningly good group. It’s a very fine debut, and something everyone involved would have to be proud of. The whole was recorded with clarity and attention to space. The songs come back and grab you again after you’ve only heard them a couple of times. What more could anyone want from pop?
by David Nichols