Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Francis & The Lights - Farewell, Starlite! Review

You'd figure after a decade spent creating his own path without much recognition, Francis Starlite would have given up by now. Instead, Francis & The Lights just released their debut LP, Farewell, Starlite!, a solid nine years after they first emerged on the scene. More intriguing than their career trajectory, however, is who've they've associated with, touring with acts as large as Drake, MGMT, and Ke$ha (in 2010), collaborating with artists like Chance The Rapper, Bon Iver and Kanye West (in 2016). Those are some mightily big names, and yet none of it has translated to Starlite's own fame, something he's sought out for years. The question then remains, is quality still the main ingredient for recognition? Celebrity endorsements aplenty, Francis still fails to make a dent, both with the mainstream and indie crowds. And it's not as if Art Pop, the genre he resides in, can be an excuse, as, if Bon Iver's 22, A Million was any indication, the genre is far from teetering. In just 32 minutes, Francis Starlite confirms the cold, hard truth; he's just not that good. Farewell, Starlite! is bland, sometimes derivative fodder, and no Kanye feature, no Vernon feature, and no production credits from acclaimed musicians can help fix that.

To many, Francis & The Lights is best known for 'Friends,' both the original version, which has the honor of being Starlite's only video over one million views thanks to a clumsy dance routine, and the re-worked Hip-Hop version that appeared on Chance The Rapper's Coloring Book under the title 'Summer Friends.' Both versions are excellent, the former emphasizing autotune that doesn't offend, the latter putting a spotlight on the atmosphere. The track radiates the strict definition of Art Pop, in the sense that minimalism reigns supreme. Thankfully Starlite never takes it to the extreme of Vernon, who's perfectly capable of carrying a song with his fractured voice alone, choosing instead to layer 'Friends,' and others here like it, with beaming synths and cavernous percussion. Apart from the short outro that sees Francis thanking those who've supported him for so long, a rather unnecessary companion piece, 'Friends' also acts as the perfect closer to Farewell, Starlite!'s entry-level romanticism. Due in large part to poor timing, releasing just one week before Bon Iver's challenging, sentimental spectacle, Farewell's rudimentary language acts as its largest detractor.

It's been three years since Like A Dream, Francis' last EP, and considering Farewell is his debut album, you'd expect the content to be something worth investigating. Yet, on the majority of tracks here, Francis resorts to typical Pop tropes. Talk of escapism, love, and love lost run through Farewell, and while that would've been excusable given music standards, what's not is how the topics are delivered. Francis' songwriting is filled with sugary ballads that don't do much to invoke, resorting to direct monologues to the love interest in question. 'I Want You To Shake,' Farewell's worst track, demonstrates this the best, singing; "Did you sleep? Did I keep you awake dear?...Something great? Or just somewhere in the ballpark?" Mixed with the excessive autotune, the lack of appealing lines and, often times, appealing vocals bruises what potential value Francis and his words have. There are a couple detours, namely 'My City's Gone' and 'Running Man,' that discuss a crumbling town and the man running from it. Again, these are told through straight-laced imagery, in that there is none. 'Running Man' also uses Forrest Gump, the famous film character, in the same vein as Frank Ocean's track from 2012, which just creates an odd taste whilst listening.

As far as the production goes, Farewell isn't all that offensive, using Francis' brand of minimalistic Art Pop that accentuates a barrage of synths and some minor background instrumentation, but, once again, it's not all that absorbing. Comparing matters to 22, A Million, or even James Blake's Colour In Anything, Farewell fails to make a statement that's anything but generic. After quietly leading the charge of autotune-enhanced Art Pop in the late 2000's, Francis' production hasn't evolved with the times, and on tracks like 'Comeback' and 'It's Alright To Cry,' those stale, expressionless synthesizers rear their heads, stagnating the entire piece. With those aforementioned artists, they've managed to tie Electropop with emotion, drawing inspiration from daring locations and building atmosphere through tension. Even on the album's rather adrenalized open, 'See Her Out,' the synth-obsession emblazon's Farewell's limited range. Thankfully that track is saved by Francis' vocal dynamics, taking ideas from Phil Collins while using clever mood transitions in the hooks and verses. Francis, as is the case with much of Art Pop, tip-toes the line between astute and tacky, something Farewell dabbles in quite often.

What's the greatest shame is the production and who's executing it. With names like Vernon, West, Rostam Batmanglij (of Vampire Weekend), Cashmere Cat, and Nate Fox (of The Social Experiment) taking care of the production, along with Francis, you'd expect the quality to not only be higher, but more varied. Yet, it seems, these musicians saved some of their most mediocre work for Farewell, taking from a narrow batch of electronic instrumentation that does feel welcome, but also unmemorable. And when Francis himself isn't attracting attention with his lyricism, Farewell doesn't have too many moments worth admiring. Again, this is in stark contrast to Bon Iver's 22, A Million, an album that, whether you hate it or love it, caused you to feel that emotion rather than eliminate all. In other words, there's no kitschy retorts like 'May I Have This Dance' or 'I Want You To Shake' on that record. And while there's a time and place for fun Electropop hits, Francis isn't the type of musician to create them. Farewell, Starlite! is trapped in a state of not knowing what it wants to be. Worse yet, it seems, it was incapable from the get-go.

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