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Soundbite

Our critics' picks in new releases

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When one encounters terms such as "home-recorded" and "personal" in regard to an album, you start bracing yourself for the possibility of rough roads ahead. Musically, there's the danger of a one-note, one-mood experience or something that's too precious by half. Writing-wise, you might get freshman-journal musings or revelations that enter the Too Much Information zone.

On this solo debut recorded on an 8-track machine and produced in the wilds of Saxapahaw, N.C., Jane Francis (bassist in the pop trio Velvet, which also features her husband Jay Manley) strides with disarming confidence and manages to sidestep all those potholes. A natural versatility and the welcoming of additional instrumentation alongside Francis' acoustic power-strumming--Manley picks his spots with electric guitar, bass, drums and organ--ensures enough variety, with moments that position Francis as a pop-leaning Lucinda Williams and others that suggest she might be kin to Victoria Williams. And despite a song that begins "I'm your wet dream, your favorite ice cream," there are no flights of gratuitous, Liz Phair-style titillation. The vocals are at times a little, let's say, rustic, but, hey, that's just in keeping with the setting. And I find that easily forgiven because Francis seems to be having so much fun that a barely contained chuckle threatens to break through on "Dream of Love." Far from pretentious, it's contagious.

The 10 Francis-penned songs on Skeletons for Tea are full of both foreboding ("The funeral director said in a Milquetoast whisper/Something about an extra large order of pine") and joy ("Liberation Avenue never shined so bright"), of beginnings ("Everyone remembers their first night/Alone with a stranger") and endings ("So when I die, please pull a blossom/And think about me often"). On the title track, Francis prepares to entertain phantoms from her past, with jaw set, chairs unfolded and the kettle half full. It should come naturally to her because she sure seems to have no problem welcoming in listeners on this homegrown record. You're going to want to get comfortable.

Jane asks for greetings and/or benedictions. Visit her at www.velvetpop.com/janefrancis.htm.

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