Ron Franklin Entertainers
(Miz Kafrin Projects)
One of my favorite bands of the past decade is Cornershop, a multicultural English outfit whose finest album, When I Was Born for the 7th Time, was named the best record of 1997 by Spin magazine and may have even deserved it.
I mention this only because whenever I listen to the Ron Franklin Entertainers, Cornershop immediately comes to mind. And not because the band necessarily sounds like Cornershop (for all I know, Franklin may be unfamiliar with them), but because the two bands are so similar in spirit. Both bands seem to be steeped in a foundation of '60s pop and rock that extends from bubblegum to the Velvet Underground. And from there, both bands genre-hop in a manner that is always catchy and warm and friendly --simply a pleasure to listen to. The difference is that Franklin & Co. replace Cornershop's Brit-pop-meets-Bollywood identity with a culture clash steeped in Bluff City blues and soul.
And Franklin's blues-and-soul roots are all over 50,000 Watts of Heavenly Joy (which was recorded at Willie Mitchell's Royal studio), from the WDIA homage of the opening "Radio (1070 AM)" to the closing Blind Willie McTell interpretation "East St. Louis." In between there's Franklin's theme song, "RFE Stomp," a juke-joint rave-up so deliciously sugary that it could double as the soundtrack for a '50s teen dance show, a surging take on the spiritual "Let It Shine on Me," and a song called "Memphis Minnie's Hornpipe," where ex-Reigning Sound sideman Alex Greene goes nuts on piano.
Franklin also engages in more recent Memphis marginalia: "Jim Cole's Got a Girlfren Now" pays homage to a real live Memphian last the subject of an Oblivians song, and on "You Talk I Listen (Goin' to the Get High Shack)," sometime Entertainers drummer (and Flyer contributor) Ross Johnson delivers a fevered, funny monologue to rival his infamous babbling on Alex Chilton's Like Flies on Sherbert. All in all, 50,000 Watts of Heavenly Joy marks a very welcome return for Franklin.
Ron Franklin Entertainers will celebrate the release of 50,000 Watts of Heavenly Joy Friday, April 2nd, at Young Avenue Deli. The first-time pairing of Fat Possum bluesman Robert Belfour and drummer-to-the-stars Ross Johnson will open the show.
When Garrison Starr released her major-label debut with 1997's Eighteen Over Me (for then-hot Geffen), she was supposed to be a star: the alt-rock Melissa Etheridge. That it didn't really happen isn't much of a surprise. Major-label "failures" are far more common than major-label success stories. And though Starr took a four-year, no-doubt soul-searching hiatus in between her 1998 Geffen swan song and her 2002 comeback, Songs From Take-off to Landing (for small indie Back Porch), one suspects that she must be happier now that she's landed on her feet with a lower-stress, artist-friendly respected indie label like the roots-identified Vanguard.
Nevertheless, the former Memphian's latest, Airstreams & Satellites, sure sounds like the work of a woman who has made it through a personal trial. There's a very therapeutic bent to these songs, Starr telling one subject "I wish I could save you from all the shrieking voices inside your head" and telling herself that "today I will sing," while she looks for "the spirit that always lights the road." The first two songs mention "faith," while songs two and three mention darkness (which faith helps lead you through, natch).
Generally, I prefer the more conversational moments, like the opening "I hate love/I really do" on "Wonderful Thing." But, thankfully, Starr is a strong enough singer to redeem banalities ("Without love we might as well give up") and cliches (love is "Like a Drug"), which are in the time-honored pop-music tradition.
Similarly, the album's vaguely rootsy modern rock tends toward the generic, so it's a welcome development when the sound alters, either for the alt-rock guitar crunch of a reborn "Superhero" (her signature hit from Eighteen Over Me) or the unadorned acoustic guitar of the title track.
There may be issues of faith and sexuality at play on Airstreams & Satellites that lend the therapeutic lyrics a more poignant gravity, but it's all on the edges of the music. Of course, to Starr's fans, it might be that these hints come through loud and clear.
Garrison Starr performs Sunday, April 4th, at the Hi-Tone CafÇ.