Review: Frankie Lee, the Verdict

While some musicians find their way into the spotlight at an early age, writing songs and releasing albums in the first flush of teenage exuberance, others spend time on the road, honing their skills, learning from other musicians, building up a weathered wisdom that develops, unhurried, in its own sweet time. So it is with Frankie Lee, a songwriter so perfectly schooled by time and the rich history of Americana that his debut album rings from the grooves with both the grizzled understanding of the travelling man and the dynamic enthusiasm of a songwriter’s first exuberant missive to the world.

In its title (American Dreamer), its iconic-looking artwork (the singer stares out from the cover in a near-homage to Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited), and the classic sound within, Lee weaves a time-honoured trail through the dusty-booted annals of stateside songwriting. There are glimpses of mid-era John Mellencamp in the pastoral pulse of album opener High and Dry, a song about agricultural self-sufficiency, while East Side Blues offers up an easy groove and shimmering pedal steel, as Lee decries the greedy developer profiteering that’s destroying the fabric and character of his city. That city is Minnesota these days, though the singer has spent time everywhere from California to Nashville, variously working manual jobs as pig farmer and carpenter, while honing his songwriting and landing upon a world view that should find approval with anyone sick of the self interest of a corporation-led world.

Like Loose Records other signings, Barna Howard, Andrew Combs, Israel Nash and co, Lee proves that there’s a mysterious alchemy in successfully writing songs that sound weathered yet timeless, while avoiding treading on the toes of one’s musical forebears. He is assisted in this regard by his vocals, which are a million miles from the throaty sounding rasp beloved of those other chroniclers of the American highways. A closer reference point would be an early-career Bob Dylan (on that basis it’s kind of appropriate that he should be called Frankie Lee) crossed with Tom Petty. It’s these vocals that infuse the songcraft on American Dreamer with bright, undiluted energy and at their best these tracks gleam with a mellifluous sheen that’s irresistible.

Lee was born by that great American musical artery, the Mississippi. Dark history and musical fertility lie deep and rich in the soil in those parts, and the Minnesotan seems to have sucked up the spirit of his forebears with the heady relish of the apt pupil, though his music seems informed by everywhere he has been and all the different lives he has led. Living in the real world adds a weighty heft to Lee’s work that resonates in the material. It’s not just a spiritual outlook, it’s a physical reality; Lee smashed three fingers on his hand in an accident that directly led to him writing music for piano rather than guitar, one of the results being the excellent album closer and title track.

Some great alt-country and Americana artists have plied their trade in Brighton in recent times, and with Lee set for big things across the pond this show is a fascinating glimpse of a gifted songwriter revving up his engine before hitting the highway again – this time with a clutch of great songs and a new audience to reach.

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