Monday, September 10, 2018

CD Odyssey Disc 1177: Frank Turner

Apologies for my long absence, dear reader. I’ve had a very busy week organizing a football pool, bidding a friend goodbye who was leaving town and then taking in not one, but two concerts. Reviews of both shows are below, but first let’s hear about the album supporting them.

Disc 1177 is… Be More Kind
Artist: Frank Turner

Year of Release: 2018

What’s up with the Cover? Some very basic line art of two hands reaching for each other. It is a heart-warming concept but not much of an album cover. When I saw this design I was immediately fearful of what this year’s tour shirts would look like. In the end it was pretty much the cover with the colour inverted. Strangely, this made it look way better – or maybe I just really wanted a tour shirt.

How I Came To Know It: I am a devoted Frank Turner fan. At this point I might even be considered a Turnerite, if such a thing exists. So when he released his first new album in three years I raced to my local music store and bought it. In truth, I probably testily looked for it in the Frank Turner section for a few weeks before it was even released.

How It Stacks Up:  We now have seven Frank Turner albums, which is all his full length studio albums. I liked “Be More Kind” but competition for my heart is fierce when it comes to Frank Turner albums and so it still came in…seventh.

Ratings: 3 stars

I try to avoid talking politics on the CD Odyssey, but albums like “Be More Kind” make it pretty hard. For his part, Frank Turner has never shied away from politics, but on this record he takes it to another level.

Like a lot of people Turner has had a strong and negative reaction to the current American administration, and his latest album is an exploration of that reaction. What makes Frank so amazing (and one of the reasons his concerts are not to be missed) is that he fundamentally believes in the decency of people. When he is confronted by divisiveness, he calls for people to come together. When some would judge, Turner encourages understanding.

So it is no surprise that while “Be More Kind” is very much an indictment of the current direction of America, Turner consistently applies a tone that implores us to be better, to do better and – at the risk of putting too fine a point on it - to build bridges not walls.

The first third of the album is song after song that explores these concepts, but the one that resonates strongest (both musically and thematically) is the title track. The more opinions are divided the more difficult it is to remain calm and not descend into rancor and vitriol. “Be More Kind” begins with a gentle guitar strum. At first there are no bass notes, just a bit of light brushing of the high notes in the chord. Then Frank’s soft almost tremulous vocals confess to you:

“They've started raising walls around the world now
Like hackles raised upon a cornered cat
On the borders, in our heads
Between things that can and can't be said
We've stopped talking to each other
And there's something wrong with that
So before you go out searching
Don't decide what you will find
Be more kind, my friends, try to be more kind”

Later a cello gets added in, a grounded and poignant shift that Turner uses to underscore that he is telling you Something Important. And he is.

Not all the songs are calls for basic empathy; on “Little Changes” Turner reminds us that if you don’t like how your society is going, make a few changes. A lot of people making little changes eventually adds up to something big.

I do have two issues with “Be More Kind” that hold the album down to a modest but respectable three stars. The first is that while these messages are amazing, some of them are a bit ham-fisted. “Make America Great Again” would make for a fun anthem at a live show, but on an album it feels a bit hackneyed.

The second is Turner’s continuing journey into a more mainstream pop sound. His prodigious songwriting talents transcend any arrangements or styles, but I tend to prefer him when he is a bit more raucous. “Be More Kind” is very polished (something Turner warned us hardcore fans about well over a year ago). I applaud him for continuing to grow his sound but I miss some of the edge.

Despite all this, Turner remains one of the great and underappreciated singer-songwriters of our time. And even if there is a bit too much sugar and nice on this record, the world could use a bit more of that these days.

Like anyone, I’ve had frustrating moments where I felt judged based on a perception of who I was, instead of who I actually was. So when Frank Turner and has the strength in the most troubling of times to remind us in “Common Ground”:

“If all we are is dust to dust, then in the end what’s left of us
Are the traces of the way we treat the ones we meet
And the ones who trouble us, the greatest test of us
Seems to me to be the way we disagree.”

It resonates, and reminds me that all you can do is be a good example and hope it spreads. It made it easy to get over whether I was hearing a cello or a Gibson Les Paul and just take Frank’s message of love and pay it forward.

Best tracks: Don’t Worry, 1933, Little Changes, Be More Kind, Going Nowhere, Common Ground

The Concert – September 8, 2018 at the Vogue Theatre, Vancouver
Sheila and I decided to play at being groupies for the weekend, and followed Frank Turner through the first two of his tour dates in Canada.

The first was at the Vogue in Vancouver. After a forty minute wait in a torrential downpour (during which I met three very nice people) we got into the theatre. The Vogue is half concert hall seating and half dance floor, and the combination is pretty great. Want to get up and dance? You can do that. Prefer to sit and watch a show? You can do that too.

Because so many folks at a Frank Turner show want to be on the floor, Sheila and I were able to stand in the most abandoned seating section without blocking anyone’s view, and dance there. So the best of both worlds!

Trapper Schoepp:

The first act was indie folk singer Trapper Schoepp, who we had also seen a year earlier at the Commodore when he had also opened for Frank. I love Schoepp’s music, and he is also a genuinely nice guy. He remembered chatting with me at the merch table the year prior and we did a bit more of that this year.

He plays a mean guitar, has a nice tone to his voice and sings songs drawn from his experience touring, growing up in Wisconsin and stories about his family. He played some tracks off his new album (sadly, I could not find it his merch table) and then a lot of old favourites I’d heard the year before but was happy to hear again.

My only bit of constructive criticism would be that he should cut down on the narrative introductions to the songs. He’d give a lot of the details of the songs away in those narratives that are far more interesting as reveals within the performance itself. A minor quibble over what was a thoroughly enjoyable opening act.

Bad Cop Bad Cop:
The second opener was Bad Cop Bad Cop, who were very much not Trapper Schoepp in style. Bad Cop Bad Cop are an all-women punk band from LA that take the stage with ferocious energy and then don’t let you up for air until the set is finished.

Don’t look for a lot of intricate finger picking from these ladies; they hit their guitars like it’s a title fight and assault your ears with good ol’ rock and roll. While they don’t shred out solos (remember – this is punk music) they are very tight. This is important, because the songs have some sneakily pretty melodies snaking through them, and the precision playing lets your ear pick it out. Depending on the song any of three of the four women took on lead vocal duties, usually with plenty of unison support from their bandmate.

In terms of performance, bassist Linh Le plays against type, leaping around the stage like a dervish and striking rock-god poses every few bars in a manner usually associated with vocalist and lead guitar. Everyone else is plenty active as well, but Le takes it to another level. Bill Wyman would probably have a heart attack just watching her.

Bad Cop Bad Cop swore a lot at the audience, but it was all in good fun and they amped up the hall beautifully for the arrival of Frank Turner.

Frank Turner:
Aahh, Frank… I’ve seen a lot of shows but there is nothing quite like the mix of atheist church revival, punk rock show and self-help group that is Frank Turner. The man knows how to put on a show and it is no accident I’ve seen him five times in three years.

Turner started the show with a few songs off his new album (reviewed above), mostly picking from my own favourites which was a happy accident.

On the fast songs, he played with reckless abandon and on the slow ones with heartfelt emotion. There was crowd surfing (both by fans and Frank himself), there was a circle in the centre of the dance floor featuring people running (at Frank’s behest). Frank even waltzed with a lucky fan for part of “Four Simple Words.”

Part of the magic that is Frank Turner is that every show has a slightly different setlist, and the deep cuts are always changing. On this night, in addition to new tracks Turner dug deep into his catalogue. This featured the highlight for me, as I finally got to hear my favourite Frank Turner song, “Love, Ire and Song” live. Thanks for that Frank, and thanks to whoever had the foresight to request it. Yes – Frank takes requests, but he takes them earlier from fans contacting him.

Early on Turner reminded the audience of his two rules. Rule #1: Don’t be an asshole. Enjoy the show in a way that doesn’t wreck the show for your neighbor. Rule #2: If you know the words sing along. Frank Turner fans take both rules very much to heart.

Every third song features a sing-a-long moment for the crowd, and like most Frank Turner crowds most of the audience knew at least the chorus and highpoints, and about a third of them knew whole songs. He may not be famous to mainstream radio listeners, but at his show he is the king. I thought I knew my Frank, but there were people there who were putting me to shame.

The effect is magical – everyone pouring their hearts out to Frank, who absorbs all that energy and feeds it back out again. If you want to know what the magic of a live performance is all about, you cannot do better than a Frank Turner show.

The Second Concert – September 9, 2018 at the Alix Goolden Hall, Victoria

Since a lot of the basics are the same, I’m going to focus on the differences between the shows rather than repeating everything I said above. So here we go!

Trapper Schoepp:

Trapper was very different. In fact, there was no Trapper Schoepp. Instead we got local Victoria indie folk artists Northcote.


Northcote (aka Matthew Daniel Goud) is an unassuming indie folk artist with a soulful voice and a penchant for writing heartful songs. Frank is also a fan, and I could see him offstage listening, watching and even singing along a little. As fun as it was to see Frank fanboying out, I focused on Goud who is a big-framed guy that you sense has a gentle fragile soul.

My minor bit of constructive criticism for Northcote is he didn't promote his brand much. Other than saying they were “Matt and Steve” (Steve being his sneaky-good guitarist) he only said the word "Northcote" once. When you are that talented you don’t need to feel weird about spreading the word about yourself; encouraging people to buy your music is doing them a favour.

Bad Cop Bad Cop:

Hearing a balls-out band like Bad Cop Bad Cop at a venue like the Alix Goolden Hall (an old church) makes for a strange fit, but it is also devilish good fun. They were just as good as the night before, although the sound was a bit over-amped for the first half of their set. This is a challenge at Alix Goolden, which has natural acoustics built for non-amplified sound.

Still, all the fun was still there and the band – slightly hampered by a small stage – still rocked the crap out of their set. Le was the same powder keg of fury, although she swore a lot less. She even said “I’m not going to swear” but at that point she had already shouted a “fuck you” at anyone who hit their spouse, so that ship had sailed. I kind of missed all the swearing, but I guess if you’re only going to have one, that’s as good a reason as you could ask for.

Frank Turner:
In the balcony above you can see Bad Cop Bad Cop as well!
Frank brought the same magic he has brought to every stage I’ve ever seen him rock. The Alix Goolden hall was not packed to the rafters (which was disappointing) but it was pretty full. Unlike most Turner venues there was no dance floor, so crowd surfing (by Frank and others) was not possible. This was a drag, but it was quickly overcome by Turner’s infectious energy.

Less people knew the songs well enough to sing along but there were enough of us to make the magic happen. I sensed not everyone was 100% sure this was the thing to do, despite Frank reiterating his two rules early on.

In terms of setlist, I missed hearing two of my favourites, perennial concert tune “Try This at Home” was gone and there was no repeat of “Love, Ire and Song”.

However, Frank’s song options are sufficiently deep that he never disappoints. “Glory Hallelujah” was added in and the crowd enthusiastically chanted “there never was no God” in the old church hall. As for deep cuts, Frank played “Sunday Nights” off of his 2009 record “Poetry of the Deed”. I love this song, which is about late nights drinking with friends when you should be getting rested up for work. Great stuff, even if – like Frank – I have pretty much given up drinking on school nights.

As with the Vancouver show, Frank invited the audience to take the “don’t be an asshole” rule into our daily lives. He posited that “this is a great rule for a concert, and pretty good rule for life as well.” I agree and the idealist in me imagines that the crowd will ripple a bit of increased kindness through their lives – maybe just for a few days, but hopefully for longer.

The final song of the night was “Polaroid Picture” which is a song about appreciating the moments you get to share with the people you love, because you never know when it’ll be the last one you’ll have. As the song goes:

“Let go of the little distractions
Hold close to the ones that you love
Because we won't all be here this time next year
So while you can take a picture of us”

In Vancouver, I had Sheila to share this sentiment with, but in Victoria the place was packed with people I love. Here’s a photo of a few of them:
There were even more spread through the hall (plus the photographer - thank you to Caroline), and the song reminded me of how fortunate I am to have so many great friends. Getting to share the magic of Frank Turner with them all made for a special night.

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