By Al Kaufman
Robert Francis is 22 years old. That’s important to know up front, because he sings like a man who has been through three wars, two depressions, and 174 heartbreaks. He is an old soul.
He is an old soul in a young body. So it should come as no surprise when his gravelly baritone sings lines such as “We took my parents’ car,” or “You shoot up then you go to class,” which give away his tender years. But it does. He has a rich, full voice that gushes with so much emotion that he is able to sing cliched lines (and there are a lot of cliched lines here) like “Darkness be my friend tonight” without sounding hokey.
The multi-instrumentalist prefers that big, grandiose sound, in which pianos and organs play a prominent role. “I Like the Air” – complete with references to a fat man, a cemetery and a blind girl – has that mysterious quality that Jim Morrison of the Doors liked to use so much, while “Junebug” resembles the sound of the ’80s new wave version of the Doors; Echo and the Bunnymen.
And Francis can croon. “You’re a loooooooone disaster,” he wails on “Mescaline.” He brings an effective tremolo to “Hallways,” and brings his best Billie Holiday – yes, Billie Holiday – impression to “Do What I Can,” a song that starts out like something Conor Oberst would write. But then Francis can play the sensitive guy with the sweet voice, a la Jackson Browne, as he does on “Playground.” His voice and melodies will ring in your head long after you listen to them.
The question that constantly plagues someone who spews such emotion and passion is, “Is he sincere?” Well, his father was a classical pianist and record producer. Her Mexican mother played ranchero songs in the house. His two sisters have played in various rock bands, and one of them is married to Ry Cooder’s son (Cooder gave the nine-year old Francis a vintage National guitar and appears on Before Nightfall). He was Red Hot Chili Pepper guitarist (and recovered heroin addict) John Frusciante’s only guitar student. Throw in the fact that his brother is a Hare Krishna, and Francis’ life offers him a strong musical pedigree as well as a wide array of life experiences from which to draw upon. And he’s got the voice, looks, and sensitivity to make the girls shiver. He’s going to be around for a while.
A free iTunes download of the song “Junebug” is available from October 13-19 here.