There's a telling photograph tucked inside the lyric booklet of Brian Franklin's new CD Stir Fried World. Granted, the thumb-size picture, taken by his father when Franklin was seven years old and his family lived in New York, doesn't show much, just Franklin's shoulders and the back of his head as he gazes at a handful of people in the distance, lounging on blankets in a Central Park field. Even so, the slight angle of Franklin's noggin as he surveys the landscape suggests a curiosity that's typical of kids who find themselves surrounded by adults. But there's something else in the way Franklin's head is cocked that implies a darker element. It's almost as if he senses that, despite the apparent innocuousness of the scene, there's something off-kilter, and possibly very wrong, with the people -- he's just too young to discern what it might be.
Okay, that might be a bit of a stretch. But judging by the eleven songs on the album, the 23-year-old Franklin seems to have spent a great deal of time studying people with the same low-level dread that's implied (or imagined) in the photo, trying to put his finger on not only what makes them tick, but what makes some people malfunction and eventually break down. How long can they can keep up appearances of normality as the pressures of everyday life strain at the seams of their personalities?
"I find happy songs to be kind of boring," states the Broward-based singer/songwriter. "I don't necessarily want to create the feeling that I'm as despondent as my lyrics. But what I'm trying to do is tap into those very things that all of us are feeling. A lot of times we do wake up and wonder, How is it that I keep myself from the chain saws at Home Depot? There are fine lines that separate us from doing the things we see on the news. And that's always been a preoccupation of mine."
Stir Fried World is filled with studies of what Franklin calls "the romanticism of the struggle." The subject of "Starting to Unfurl," for example, spends his days with his "fists all tight," and feels his grasp on a relationship slipping away even as he realizes, "If I could dream at night/Without me holding the gun/I might wake up feeling warm/I might wake up in your arms." The protagonist of "Bad Bad Day," having secured "more love than I think I can take," announces early in the song, "I want to go for a drive and get hopelessly lost/And start again without paying the cost."
And so it goes in most of Stir Fried World, where ordinary lives and relationships are in various stages of collapse. For most of these people the only alternative is escape -- or perhaps just the fantasy of an escape -- whether by car, gun, drugs, or simply a diagnosis of clinical depression ("So I'd have a good reason to stay in bed," Franklin sings in "Just Sleep Instead"). "I'm not writing about Jeffrey Dahmer," Franklin notes of the desperate characters who populate most of his songs. "I'm writing about people who might have lost a little control over their lives and their happiness."
Morose as it all seems on paper, the music on Stir Fried has a familiar, comfortable feel. Most of the oblique lyrics are rendered against a rootsy, midtempo backdrop that harks back to the works of heartland rockers like Bruce Springsteen and John Mellencamp. The aforementioned "Bad Bad Day" shimmies along on a driving beat that would be at home in a car-stereo commercial; "Lucky," possibly the album's bleakest number lyrically, is wrapped in a majestic melody that builds slowly and soars to such heights you can't help but hum along with the chorus, even though said chorus -- "Ain't it funny how lucky we are/It's a real good thing we wished on that star" -- is dripping with sarcasm.
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Musically, the album is a natural progression from Franklin's worthy debut effort, last year's Suburban Hallucinations, a largely acoustic, mostly solo work that helped Franklin land a development deal with Mercury Records/Polygram Music. A change of management at Mercury three weeks after the deal was signed last October left Franklin spending the past year without much support or interest from the label. The A&R rep who signed Franklin left the company a few months after the management change, and the contract expired last week with no indication from Mercury that the company was interested in signing Franklin to a recording contract. But the advance money from the development deal allowed Franklin to buy some recording equipment and helped pay for the recording of Stir Fried World. "I don't feel like I got gypped," he says of the Mercury experience. "The year was very fruitful. I was able to take a year and be a musician and play."
The money also allowed Franklin to form a group and tinker with dynamics. The Brian Franklin Band has already gone through a number of line-up and sound changes, veering from a raw, primal approach that featured Franklin's cathartic lead-guitar work to a minimalist three-piece guitar-bass-drums alignment that couldn't do justice to some of the material. "I went through a lot of experimentalism this year," Franklin explains. "It took me a long time to find that happy medium between what I was doing before, which was mostly acoustic shows and acoustic-based stuff, to what I wanted to do, which was a mix of [acoustic and electric]." Franklin has settled on a four-piece configuration rounded out by guitarist Darren Coleman, bassist Debbie Duke (formerly of the Robbie Gennet Band) and drummer Jordan Steele Lash, whose association with Franklin goes back three years, to when they were both members of the band Sabatella. (Lash also co-produced Stir Fried World.)
"This past year has been about me trying to find where I'm going," Franklin says. "It was like I had a free ticket with an airline and I didn't know where to go. I did have a lot of resources available to me, and I had a year to really come out with something. And it wasn't until the end of the year when I started to find some focus. Now I feel like I'm something of a laser beam because I know what I need to do from a career standpoint. I also know what I want to do musically, and I think that's pretty well defined on the album."
The Brian Franklin Band performs Thursday, October 24, at Rose's Bar & Lounge, 754 Washington Ave, Miami Beach, 532-0228. Admission is free. Showtime is 10:00.