he summer heat's finally hit Virginia, and I'm turning to Francine to cool me off. Not a local with ice cube tricks, Francine is a group of guys from Boston who never seem to lose it even when the girl leaves or when they leave or when it just doesn't end up right. Their new album Airshow is smooth enough to be pop, but probably too complex and full of ambiguity to be properly digested over radio. Songwriter Clayton Scoble keeps his lyrics shifting and the band carefully crafts the music, leaving plenty of space, maybe for you to ponder in.
For music that initially goes down like a Popsicle, it can leave your stomach churning. "Day Sucker" sets up the kind of loss that makes insomnia feel permanent: "So you learned to shift left-handed at night / So you could memorize her fingers in your right." As listeners, we can tell by the hum of the music and the covered vocals that this situation isn't going to get better, and Scoble quickly confirms our worries, singing "Now you overexpose until it's pale." The track develops around hurt and loss, but Scoble shifts the narrative perspective enough to make a story difficult to pin down. When he sings, "You don't want nobody to stay? / Sucker," it's hard to know who's addressing whom, but when he clips off the key thought—"It could have been the most amazing--"—it doesn't really matter anyhow.
It would be easy to brand Francine with the dreaded "literate" tag, but the group's so unassuming, they hardly sound like poets in need of attention. That style makes it not only forgivable, but actually charming when Scoble later sings with a wink, "Don't make me rhyme you-know-what with 'desire.'" The joke works even as we wonder if "Beware Beatrice" is a meant to be read as a song of love, seduction, or farewell. Scoble's talent is obscuring the final reading of his texts, but his better talent is in not obscuring his songs so far that they become unrelatable.
Musically, the band matches the moods and craftsmanship of the lyrics. Occasionally hinting at a lounge influence, the group never loses control, but rarely stays predictable. The group's sound leaves plenty of space, partly in the performances and partly in the production (led by band member Steve Scully). Much of the album, except when electronic atmospheres pin it down, feels like it was recorded in a cave, which gets me back to cooling off again because every cave I've ever been in has been colder than the air outside it. Not that Francine come across as cold—they've just managed to pack their emotion in meticulous playing, controlled delivery, and partially-covered lyrics.
With Airshow, Francine have created an album that's much better than it's likely to get credit for being. Growers, these days, tend to be weird or folky or both, not ostensibly straightforward pop-rock that makes you think you know what's going on. It's hard to imagine Francine being bothered by that, though. After all, this is the sort of band that would rather write an ode to forgotten TV secret agent John Drake than big screen franchise man James Bond.
Listen to songs from Airshow here.