So many young musicians who dabble in roots forms like blues and country tend to dote on -- or ape -- their perceived torment and gravity, like kids playing dress-up. Memphis musician Ron Franklin instead taps into the musicality of these forms. Though he has dabbled in garage rock, hip-hop-type sound collages, and other more contemporary styles in bands such as the Natural Kicks and the rotating-cast-of-playmates Ron Franklin Entertainers, Franklin seems to be a roots musician at heart. His two new albums are rooted in a country blues that evokes the gentle spirit of John Hurt or the playful mood of the Memphis Jug Band.
- City Lights Ron Franklin (Memphis International)
City Lights is the prolific Franklin's first album for an established record label, in this case the locally based Memphis International, and it features Franklin backed by a first-rate cast of local supporting players at Willie Mitchell's Royal Studios. It's a traditional record, with Franklin at the forefront, but the musicians -- veterans of such bands as the Reigning Sound, Tearjerkers, and Franklin's own Entertainers -- lend the record a more communal spirit than you might expect. Franklin's songs on City Lights -- all but three are originals -- are given sharp color: piano fills from Jim Dickinson or Adam Woodard, maraca accents from Ross Johnson or Greg Roberson, pedal-steel from John Whittemore on "How Free Will I Be This Morning," and atmospheric organ from Woodard on "Beyond the River."
All of this abets Franklin's distinct style. His vocals in any setting are, well, pretty but especially here, where the lack of electric guitars or rock drums leaves space for his voice to command more attention. And this matches Franklin's musical light touch, typified by the lovely, lyrical guitar riff of "What Is This Present Moment" and the old-timey finger-picking on the Blind Blake cover "That Will Never Happen No More."
- Blue Shadows Falling Ron Franklin (Self-Released)
But what separates Franklin from so many other adept roots stylists is that even in such a traditional, low-key setting, he doesn't skimp on the pure musical pleasures of rhythm and sound. You can hear this on the original "Little Suzie," which blends Bo Diddley beats and railroad rhythms into a sugary rave-up. Or on Franklin's cover of Chuck Berry's "Thirty Days," which sounds even more rambling than the original. Or in the kaleidoscopic rhythms of "Gloryland."
Released concurrently with City Lights is Blue Shadows Falling, which Franklin is distributing himself in hand-made cardboard packaging. The self-released Blue Shadows Falling is a little more unadorned and suffers a bit for it. Sometimes the more intimate settings works -- such as on "Please Do Not Call On Me Again" -- but overall it results in a less memorable record than City Lights.
Franklin's strength seems to be more as a musician and conceptualist than songwriter, and Blue Shadows Falling is stronger when Franklin breaks out of straightforward acoustic folk/blues modes. Highlights include: the rollicking lead cut "The Elocutionist"; "Last Thoughts on Bourbon Corners," a harmonica-laced blues that strolls more than swaggers; and the porch-stomping sing-along "Lovin' Arms."
For Franklin to release two records at once might seem like overkill, especially when one -- the label-connected City Lights -- would give Franklin a shot at an expanded audience. But, perhaps to his credit, Franklin is oblivious to such biz-oriented concerns. He makes music -- lots of it -- on his own schedule and following his own whims. Here's a two-disc, 23-song testament to what a good thing that is. -- Chris Herrington
Grades: City Lights: A-; Blue Shadows Falling: B+