Last weekend I cleaned out those kitchen drawers that slowly accumulate clutter that has nothing to do with a functioning kitchen. Most of the stuff ended up in the trash, but I found two old ticket stubs from 1991. One was for Colin James playing the Powell River Complex in May ($21.60). I would have been home for the summer working between university terms back then. The other one was for Loreena McKennitt at the University Centre ($13) in November.
I remember the McKennitt show as one of my top three concerts of all time. I cried when she played Bonnie Portmore. This likely did not score points with my date, but I couldn’t help myself. I didn’t cry at Colin James, which was a largely forgettable show. I went because entertainment options in Powell River were limited.
Disc 1143 is… Skating Rink
Artist: David Francey
Year of Release: 2003
What’s up with the Cover? Did I mention this guy is Canadian?
How I Came To Know It: I read an article about him in the magazine Penguin Egg about three months ago. Then I went and checked out his music.
How It Stacks Up: I have fallen for David Francey hard, going from “who’s he?” to “I must have all his music!” in a few short weeks. So far I have seven of his albums with three more on my “to get” list. Because of my reckless and indiscriminate dive into his collection I have no idea which one is best at this point, but “Skating Rink” is very good. I’ll go with third for now and reserve the right to modify it up or down as I give the others the same time I gave this one.
Ratings: 4 stars
I don’t know how I went so long not knowing David Francey. Call it an unhappy lack of judgment I’ve since recovered from. “Skating Rink” is another great record by him; heartfelt, honest and so casually beautiful you’d think he did it by accident.
While he may not have the same historical pedigree as Stan Rogers or Gordon Lightfoot, Francey is every bit their equal and belongs in any conversation with them about Canada’s great folk singer-songwriters. He is that good.
Francey doesn’t have a massive range but his tone is rich and his phrasing is second to none. He also has a delightful touch of the Scottish brogue of his birthplace (Francey came to Canada at age 12). I don’t know how that didn’t wear off years ago, but I’m glad it’s there.
The guitar work is also beautiful. It is characterized by a heavy hand that isn’t afraid to make those strings speak their truths, yet never feels overbearing. It feels insistent. Francey’s got something important to say, and that guitar is determined to punctuate the sermon.
Francey writes within the traditional musical structures of traditional folk music, but it never feels dated or derivative. Instead, it feels timeless, holding you in a gentle sway like the sea and letting you drift into a daydream into which Francey pours his tales.
Francey got a very late start in the music business – he worked in blue collar jobs until he switched to singing full time at the age of 45. He benefits from the maturity of all that experience, and you can feel the weight of years on him. It doesn’t weigh him down though; it gives him depth and substance.
There are plenty of love songs on “Skating Rink” many of them that approach hoke territory, but never cross over. The best of these is “Broken Glass” which captures what it feels like when new love leaves you fragile and breathless. As Francey sings it:
“When you hear a sound like broken glass
That’s my heart every time that girl walks past
When you hear a sound like the rush of wind
It’s just me catching my breath again.”
Francey is the master of capturing a moment in time, instilling it with import and lasting substance. On “Skating Rink” he captures the excitement of youth “laughing in the face of the darkness at the lonely heart of winter”. On “Streets of Calgary” he captures the bravado of a street walker as she propositions him “in a voice as hard as nails you sighed ‘Do you want some company?’” It’s sad and tough in equal proportion.
On “Midway” the guitar’s insistent bass note rings, surrounded by the twinkle of lighter strings, capture the lights at the local amusement park as they flare out, the sun comes up and the season prepares to end. This song has just as much world-weary wonder and romance as Mark Knopfler or Bruce Springsteen managed with the same topic.
The guitar solo that serves as the bridge of this song is sublime and the song sends you on your way with a wan and wistful verse…
“Down on the midway, down on the midway
Night turns into day, down at the fair
Young girls in a house of mirrors
Combing their hair
Rag end of summer hangs
Up in the air.”
“Midway” is the seasonal exception on the record though, and for the most part it was a little odd hearing so many winter-themed songs as I walked home on a warm spring evening. Fortunately the themes are so intimate it felt like I was experiencing them wrapped in a warm blanket.
Sun or snow was ultimately irrelevant, though. No matter what cares I had over the past three days, every time I pushed play on “Skating Rink” it immediately grabbed my attention, sending me into a musical reverie that connected me to the music, my country and to humanity in general. I’m looking forward to rolling my next David Francey album, but at least I’ll have “Skating Rink” to keep me warm while I wait.
Best tracks: Broken Glass, Midway, Belgrade Train, Streets of Calgary, Annie’s House, Nearly Midnight