JW Francis – Dream House: Album review

Requests for Valentine’s Day: Gooey musings from lo-fi ‘slacker’ JW Francis

Release Date:  27th January 2023

Label: Sunday Best Recordings

Formats: CD / Vinyl / Cassette / Digital

He was born in Oklahoma and raised in Paris – France or Texas, I’m not sure – but singer/songwriter with a difference, JW Francis, is now firmly fixed in New York City.  Taking the structure of his name from childhood inspiration CS Lewis (the “Narnia” guy), he set out a couple of years ago to create his own unique brand of what has been described as “Gooey, warming bedroom pop” and to explore exactly what can be achieved in a home studio with the minimum of instrumentation, bags of imaginative ideas and several yards of sheer brass neck.  And, do you know what?  He’s made a success of that venture; his music is certainly gooey and warming – I’d also add adjectives like ‘dreamy’ and ‘lazy’ – and it’s highly pleasant in an unconventional sort of way.

The words “lo-fi slacker” have been used to describe JW and that’s a phrase that captures an awful lot of what you need to know about him, and what to expect from his music…

Dream House is JW’s third album on the London-based Sunday Best label and follows his acclaimed previous offerings – We Share a Similar Joy (2020) and Wanderkid (2021.)  That Wanderkid was released whilst JW was walking the daunting 2,000-mile Appalachian Trail (a la Bill Bryson) gives you the feel for the kind of guy that we’re dealing with here…  His music has been compared to The Strokes and Lou Reed and, whilst those comparisons may be stretching the point somewhat, there’s certainly a bravery and inventiveness amongst these songs that would impress either of those figureheads.

JW is keen to point out that his songs are not inspired by his own life and experiences.  Instead, he seeks inspiration from others, in the case of Dream House by inviting his social media followers to “… send me the name of your Valentine and the reason you love them, and I’ll write a song on your behalf.”  JW goes on to elaborate: “That is how Dream House was born, 3 years ago.  Over the past three years, I have received over 300 requests from fans to write songs for their loved ones.  All of the songs on Dream House come from this project, some of them have been reworked to speak more to the artist’s life, others have remained exactly as they were first written.  Ultimately, this is an album about caring for others, and the way we express it.”

Well – I’m not too sure that those admirable sentiments have survived the transition from pen to vinyl, but I AM sure that JW has come up with a set of songs that are as engagingly entertaining as they are unusual.  The music is tuneful with strong hints of the soundtracks of early games console products – like the Sonic The Hedgehog series – with similar dreamy qualities and the tunes are full of unexpected changes in direction.  I’d describe JW’s vocal style of choice as “intriguingly disinterested.” The vocals are often low in the mix, slurred and half-spoken and the lyrics sometimes sound like they’re being ad-libbed and, believe it or not, that all adds to the surprising appeal of the album.

Things get underway with the light, poppy Going Home to a Party and the song’s bouncy rhythm, light keyboard tones and casual vocals set the template for what’s to come and the humourous lead single Casino is a curious mix of Europop and something far more sinister, as JW slurs his typically throwaway lyrics.

For the soft, sparkly Dream House, the album’s title track, JW delivers the lyrics as though he, too, is part of the dream, whilst for the excellent Our Story, he adopts the persona of a half-awake Mick Jagger.  Built upon one of the album’s “games console” keyboard themes, Our Story is one of my favourite tracks – dreamy and hypnotic – and I love the lazy, twangy guitar play-out.

Status Quo meets OMD, with Lou Reed on vocals, for the rocky Swooning – possibly the strongest track on the album and a good candidate for the follow-up single, maybe.  Those may, or may not, be guitars that I can hear in the background, but whatever they are, they make a nice sound…  With its tinkly keyboard backing and downplayed vocal, the anarchic Keep It Cool, Steve sounds like a Depeche Mode demo, whilst the mood is shifted significantly for the bluesy All Night Long.  To thudding bass notes and an insistent organ riff, JW groans the “All Night Long” refrain, and it’s one of those tunes that, once inside your head, can’t be shifted.

We get another taste of ‘games console/dream sequence’ music with Dream Big – and the disjointed noodly guitar at the end of the song is another challenging surprise on an album that’s loaded with such things – before JW adopts a Ray Davies vocal style to deliver I Wanna Be Your Basketball, another of the album’s standout tracks.  JW even enlists the services of a female backing vocalist on a song that is both rocky and tuneful, whilst venturing up unexpected avenues.

The frantic Take Me Away heads into territory that could almost be described as ambient, and, if you can imagine the insistent rhythms of a band like Joy Division mixed with the calypso tinklings of a steel band, you’ll have a good idea what You’re Changing, the album’s penultimate track, sounds like.

Perhaps the entire album is summed up in the 2½ minutes of closing track, Sweet as a Rose.  To a twangy bassline, laced with lightly scattered keyboard notes, JW grudgingly acknowledges the “Sweet as a Rose” status of the song’s subject through, seemingly, tight lips and clenched teeth.  The combination of light electronic pop and reluctantly-offered lyrical compliments are the recurring theme of the album and, in a surprising and unexpected way, it’s a theme that works.

And the album surfaces just as JW arrives in the UK for a series of intimate shows in some of this country’s finest record shops.  Full details of the forthcoming tour can be found here.

Watch the official video to Casino, the album’s lead single, here:

JW Francis online: Website/ Facebook/ Instagram/ YouTube

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