David Francey,
Torn Screen Door
(Laker Music, 1999)

I'm not sure what it is in my blood that leads me toward Celtic music. I worked it out once, and I believe if I stretch it a bit, I could call myself 1/8th Irish, though the German and English blood are certainly what mark my face and name. Still, once I discovered Irish culture, whether it be out of the awareness of the Boston enclaves or from the West Coast of Ireland that I was lucky enough to visit, I fell in love. From there my interests stretched into all the derivations of Celtic culture, from storytelling and mythology to the music which has been a grand part of that love affair.

David Francey's Torn Screen Door almost immediately reminded me of being on the West Coast, though he hails from a Scottish background and I do realize the distinct differences between the two. I visited a small yet notable town called Doolin, a stone's throw from the sea and arguably the present center of traditional Irish music. In the relatively large but necessarily homey pub in the center of Doolin, musicians from all over the world mingle with the local masters and play a lovely mixture of traditional and not-so-traditional selections for their audience. The musical play and interaction with the audience makes for an energetic and rare time.

Francey's album pulled me back to that smoky, cheerful room, and the mingling of inspirations that created some outstanding music. Francey's album had an undeniable edge to it and the structure of a tapestry woven between the songs that wouldn't appear in a few tunes played in a pub. Those interwoven themes and lyrics make the album a beautiful whole, each track building on the one before to show another side of the artist. I have no doubt that live, he is quite engaging, most probably a great storyteller as well, but here it seems more personal and makes the stories that are told quietly resonant.

The album begins with "Border Line" and Francey's unmistakable vowels meld with a dancing rhythm to make an energetic and evocative song of labor and traveling home. His strong rough voice suits the music well and the vivid lyrics connecting the natural landscape to the personal create strong images. The storyteller aspect of the entire album is immediately apparent, and as each songs links the next, you feel like you're hearing a kind of life history or collected short stories as well as music.

"Hard Steel Mill" works more like a kind of worker's lullaby, with a gentle beat and lyrical melody. The words continue the story of the first song, though this one concentrates on the work itself rather than the escape, however temporary, that comes at the finish of the day. The lyrics go so far as to echo the first song by again repeating "border line" as a part of the chorus, which is not annoying as it might have been, but instead suggest right away the interconnected nature of the album.

"Sorrows of the Sailor" is a beautiful traditional snippet of a song which leads into the next theme of the ocean and lives it lays claim to. Here, with no accompaniment, Francey's voice, in the melody and harmony, is allowed to show its own substantial power as well as the clear poetical power of his lyrics as he describes the incomprehensible life of a sailor as "Caught between the Devil and something worse / Hung between heaven and the life on earth."

Continuing the theme of the sea is "Blue Water," on the surface a love song though it becomes more of a contemplation of personal history and memory. Both of the songs evoking the sea reject that life but cannot help but acknowledge the importance of the ocean in the two moments described. The light feeling of the song soften the more weighty lyrics, and the fiddle is lovely throughout the song. Again the lyrics stand out, contemplating the mystery of the ocean's character: "Sometimes I feel like I'm always at sea / Always pulled by the tides of the time / In the faces and places that beckon to me / My heart always knows its own mind."

"Saints and Sinners" moves away from the water and instead addresses the distance that is felt from religion and the comfort that is lost as faith slips away. The chorus is lovely and of the kind that will stick with you, the last word of bell made to seem like a ring rather than the singer's voices.

"Sumach Street" stands a little apart as a ballad of a relationship, a kind of apology and lament over mistakes made. The gentleness of the song suits its attitude and provides a quiet interlude between one section of the album and the next.

"Wind in the Wires" immediately strikes the listener as minor and more angry than the previous selections. The conviction of addressing the bitter end of a relationship is echoed in the stronger, louder delivery. The lyrics again stand shift right with the music: "Well I took a walk on the night we talked / Just to recognize myself / And it hurt so bad, thinking what we had / Now belonged to someone else / Now every street I walk upon / And every road I'm on / There's a lonely sound like a wind in the wires / At the end of a love long gone."

"Gypsy Boys" works away from matters of the heart and toward instead the stories of everyday life and labor that Francey is obviously concerned with and tells extremely well. Throughout these songs, the balance between the work and those he works for is carefully observed and whittle down to a few choice words which say all that is necessary without beating the issue over the head and becoming a "message" song which people groan to listen to.

"Red-Winged Blackbird" provides a light moment in the midst of the end of the album. A traditional sounding song about the coming of the spring, it reminds one of the elation that comes in winter when you begin to realize that better weather is not far off. There is high energy moving the song forward and is perhaps the most likely one to get stuck in your head.

Back to the theme of labor, "Working Poor" is another strong song observing what might be everyday to many but it also unseen by the majority. The bass thrums through the back of the tune, marking it a little rockier than most. Again, the critical eye and tone of voice give power to the song and make it quite a rousing and important addition to the sequence.

Mingling the working themes with history and the mourning of forgotten ways of life, "St Johns Train" uses a rollicking melody and sharp words to comment on the disappearance of tradition. Trains are always a favorite to provide that critique of industry leaving behind incarnations and marking them as outdated, leaving people with skills no longer considered useful and ignoring the comfort and appeal that that way of life could still have.

"Gypsy Boys Reprise" provides another moment of not exactly calm but pause in the final stretch of the album. The instrumental reworking of the earlier song is beautiful and show less so without the accompanying voice.

"Torn Screen Door" draws all the themes together, starting off with a lovers' walk in the woods being interrupted by an abandoned relic of the not-so-distant past. The style is very traditional, with three voices layered, but the lyrics are certainly contemporary, a kind of lament. Again the words excel in their use of nature to echo mood and message: "They worked their fingers to the bone / Nothing left they could call their own / Packed it in under leaden skies / With just the wheat waving them good-bye."

"Long Way Home" is a well-chosen finish for the album, again bringing together ideas of traveling and love. While first concentrating on the lonely nights that come in along times apart from a lover, the song ends with a sense of the support that memories provide and the anticipation of returning to home after such a long time away.

All in all the album is a beautiful example of the kind of music that can arise from mingling cultures and both the awareness of tradition and a willingness to stretch those traditions. David Francey's musical artistry and turn of phrase mark him as both a remarkable storyteller and musician. All I can hope is that his next album will hit the shelves soon and with as much lyrical force.

[ by Robin Brenner ]