In Plain Sight
3 out of 5 stars
Keyboardist/singer/songwriter Neal Francis was already a veteran upon the release of his critically acclaimed 2019 debut. He started as a dedicated blues pianist, moved to a more retro funk instrumental style with The Heard, almost died from an alcohol-induced seizure in 2015, and got his life together for his first solo album, the rootsy, soulful, and appropriately titled Changes.
He’s back on major indie ATO, and perhaps not surprisingly, Francis moves towards a more pop, less retro mainstream direction for this follow-up. Noted producer Dave Fridmann mixed the project but even though the album was produced by the same person who helmed his previous set, and was recorded old-school to magnetic tape with his road band, it’s a much slicker collection. That’s partially due to the analog synths that, for better or worse, dominate the sound along with an overdubbed approach and songwriting that feels less interesting or twisty and more structured than before.
Francis is still smarting from a busted romance which naturally drives the lyrics in these songs. That’s certainly true in the peppy and upbeat, almost tropical soul of “BNLV” (We had a good thing in the past/Why can’t good things last forever/True love never lasts), the more melancholy “Asleep” (Asleep in the arms of another/Dreaming that we were still lovers) and “Can’t Stop the Rain’ (I can’t hide from you, girl/‘Cause you’re in every song). The latter is one of the disc’s finest moments with its nod to Elton John’s piano style and a surprise, high profile appearance from Derek Trucks on slide guitar that boosts the song into a high gear generally absent on other tracks.
The vitality of the few rockers like the self-deprecating title of “Sentimental Garbage” (those words never appear in the tune) also helps increase the album’s energy as he again references his broken relationship with This is hard to get used to/Won’t be long before it’s time to move on for the album’s longest and most dramatic selection, due in large part to Kellen Boersma’s guitar solo.
Francis’ voice which should be highlighted, sometimes gets lost in the mix. And when he sings lines like My brain is broken I’m now convinced/I can’t push these thoughts away/It’s not some ordinary pain I feel/But an existential dread his vocals lack the intensity those words deserve.
The melodies may take a few spins to connect, but the retro ‘80s blue-eyed soul and funk-lite of the instrumentation are obvious and endearing, especially when the ghostly yet potent backing choruses occasionally kick in.
Neal Francis’ balancing act of meshing a retro mindset with a modern sensibility doesn’t always work, but when it does, his music reflects a fresh, if not always compelling, perspective.