ICYMI: Francis and the Lights — It’ll Be Better

FrancisAndTheLights

FrancisAndTheLights

Sometimes great albums with mainstream appeal manage to kind of slip through the cracks. Years later, I’ll stumble across them and think, “People would really like this album. It should’ve gotten more love.” ICYMI (In Case You Missed It) revisits albums that deserve revisiting.

I’m still not exactly sure where I stand on Chance The Rapper’s Coloring Book project. Sometimes albums just kind of confuse me. One thing I’m sure of is that I was thrilled to see a feature (among other contributions) from Francis and the Lights on “Summer Friends.” There were a few Coloring Book features I was expecting. Francis and the Lights was not one of them. The sound worked perfectly with Chance’s laid-back flow and Jeremih’s effortless harmonizing.

To keep the momentum going, the band released “THANK YOU” on SoundCloud. It recalls later Bon Iver tracks like “Heavenly Father.” Turns out it was recorded in Justin Vernon’s living room. Clocking in at 1:40, it’s not something that will stop the presses. It was, however, enough to catch my ear, put Francis back on my radar, and remind me of their wonderful EP, It’ll Be Better.

Francis Farewell Starlight (apparently this dude’s real name) has had an interesting career path. His band released It’ll Be Better in 2010, the same year they produced Drake’s “Karaoke” and opened for him on on the Away From Home Tour in support of Thank Me Later. It was a lot of publicity thrown on a group that was a virtual nobody. Imagine your first real break is opening for the world’s hottest rapper in sold out arenas. Everyone came to hear “Best I Ever Had,” and you open the night hitting them with off-kilter pop music.

Perhaps it’s no wonder the band never really took off, despite such a key break. They got marketed to the wrong crowd. Drake’s fans, especially the ones he had in 2010, weren’t ready for Francis and the Lights. A 2012 film score and 2013 EP later and it would be hard to say the band is singing to significantly a larger audience than they were in 2010. None of this changes the simple fact that It’ll Be Better is a bit of a diamond in the rough.

It’s great when an artist knows their range and kills it (Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago is an all-time favorite). I also have a lot of respect for artists who can pull off a spectrum of sounds. Not only does It’ll Be Better showcase an impressive range, but it does so while being cohesive and catchy. The sounds here are varied while still having a distinct flavor and undeniable infectiousness.

The title track kicks things off with sparse percussion and a guitar that borders on blues-y. Our protagonist begs for the return of a lost lover with the promise that things will be better than they were before it all went wrong. It’s essentially a minimalist country song. The mental image of an arena full of Drake fans hearing this is jarring.

“In a Limousine” explores synths and drum machines with a wistful chorus, assuring listeners that “It doesn’t matter” while instructing them to “Save it for a rainy day.” The whole album makes for pretty good carefree, windows-down, sunny day music.

“For Days” cascades to full blown funk, while “Knees to the Floor” and “Darling, It’s Alright” explore a more emotional, urgent side of the band. Tracks like “Going Out” make you wonder how Francis and the Lights only ended up with one film score. This is rom-com dynamite.

The project’s most fully-explored idea comes on “Tap the Phone,” where a couple in a destructive relationship comes to the realization that perhaps the only way to stay sane is via one-way communication, be it a tapped phone line or a song on the radio. The chorus is relentlessly catchy.

If you think the idea of tapping someone’s phone is a bit creepy, you’re in for a treat on “Get In The Car.” If you read the title and think it sounds a bit predatory, you’d be exactly right. I can’t think of a good reason to end such a solid project with a song that seems to amount to get in my van. “You’re gonna need someone / Someone like me / So get in the car.”

Seriously, what is this?

Get in the car

Cause your mother told me to meet you right here

I know it sounds crazy

But it’s true I swear

I sure hope this is just a misguided concept song about the dangers of predators in the entertainment industry, because these lyrics are creepy.

Baffling song concepts aside, the album understands itself artistically. There’s a distinct, minimalist ’80s pop aesthetic here that gives Francis his own lane. Six years later, I can still hear his distinct style on Chance’s “Summer Friends.”

There aren’t any intricate lyrical moments or overwrought themes on It’ll Be Better. There’s a reason this didn’t win a Grammy. There’s a reason many publications totally panned it. But not every album needs to explore the meaning of life or pitfalls of the human condition. Sometimes great music just sounds cool and feels good. So much of It’ll Be Better does just that.

Although It’ll Be Better spans eight tracks and 26 minutes, it’s classified as an EP. We’re a full nine years into Francis and the Lights, and we still don’t have a proper album yet. Maybe it’s coming. Francis has proven his well-honed voice and style. It would be kind of a shame if we never saw that over a full-length LP.