The Historic Grants Lounge at Grant's Lounge
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On his new album In Plain Sight, Neal Francis offers up abody of work both strangely enchanted and painfully self-aware, unfolding in songssparked from Greek myths and frenzied dreams and late-night drives in thedepths of summer delirium. True to its charmed complexity, thesinger/songwriter/pianist’s second full-length came to life over the course of atumultuous year spent living in a possibly haunted church in Chicago. The result: a portrait ofprofound upheaval and weary resilience, presented in a kaleidoscopic soundthat’s endlessly absorbing.
The follow-up toFrancis’s 2019 debut Changes—a NewOrleans-R&B-leaning effort that landed on best-of-the-year lists from thelikes of KCRW, KEXP, and The Current, and saw him hailed as “the reincarnationof Allen Toussaint” by BBC Radio 6—InPlain Sight was written and recorded almost entirely at the church, anow-defunct congregation called St. Peter’s UCC. Despite not identifying asreligious, Francis took a music-ministry job at the church in 2017 at thesuggestion of a friend. After breaking up with his longtime girlfriend while ontour in fall 2019, he returned to his hometown and found himself with no placeto stay, then headed to St. Peter’s and asked to move into the parsonage. “Ithought I’d only stay a few months but it turned into over a year, and I knew Ihad to do something to take advantage of this miraculous gift of a situation,”he says.
Mixed by GrammyAward-winner Dave Fridmann (HAIM, Spoon, The Flaming Lips, Tame Impala), In Plain Sight finds Francis againjoining forces with Changes producerand analog obsessive Sergio Rios (a guitarist/engineer known for his work withCeeLo Green and Alicia Keys). Like its predecessor, the album spotlights Francis’srefined yet free-spirited performance on piano, an instrument he took up at theage of four. “From a very early age, I was playing late into the night in avery stream-of-consciousness kind of way,” he says, naming everything fromragtime to gospel soul to The Who among his formative influences. With aprodigy-like gift for piano, Francis sat in with a dozen different blues actsin Chicago clubs as a teenager, and helmed a widely beloved instrumental funkband called The Heard before going solo. Along with earning lavish acclaim(including a glowing review from Bob Lefsetz, who declared: “THIS IS THE FUTUREOF THE MUSIC BUSINESS!”), Changes ledto such triumphs as performing live on KCRW’s “Morning Becomes Eclectic,” sharingthe stage with members of The Meters at the New Orleans Jazz & HeritageFestival, and touring with such acts as Lee Fields & The Expressions andBlack Pumas.
Recorded entirelyon tape with his bandmates Kellen Boersma (guitar), Mike Starr (bass), andCollin O’Brien (drums), In Plain Sight bears a lush anddreamlike quality, thanks in large part to Francis’s restless experimentation with a stash of analog synths lent by hisfriends in his early days at the church. “My sleep schedule flipped and I’dstay up all night working on songs in this very feverish way,” he says. “I justneeded so badly to get completely lost in something.” In a move partly inspired by LedZeppelin’s Houses of the Holy, In Plain Sight takes its title from atrack Francis ended up scrapping from the album. “It’s a song about my breakupand the circumstances that led to me living in the church, where I’m owning upto all my problems within my relationships and my sobriety,” says Francis, whosefirst full-length chronicles his struggles with addiction. “It felt like theright title for this record, since so much of it is about coming to theunderstanding that I continue to suffer because of those problems. It’s aboutacknowledging that and putting it out in the open in order to mitigate thesuffering and try to work on it, instead of trying to hide everything.”
The opulentopening track to In Plain Sight,“Alameda Apartments” makes for a majestic introduction to the album’s unveilingof Francis’s inner demons. “I started writing that song maybe six years ago,before I got sober,” he says. “I was going through another breakup and gettingkicked out of my place, and I had a nightmare about moving into an art-decoapartment that was haunted, where the walls were all shifting around.” A primeshowcase for Francis’s piano work, “Alameda Apartments” simulates that dreamstate in its untethered melodies, luminous grooves, and lyrics that drift fromdespair to detached curiosity (e.g., “It remains to be seen if the ghosts areall right”). “The craziest thing is that I’d never encountered the name‘Alameda’ in any time in my life prior to that dream,” says Francis. “It’sbizarre that I even remembered it, especially since you don’t dream very oftenwhen you’re getting fucked up.”
On “Problems,” In Plain Sight eases into a brighter andbreezier mood, with Francis mining inspiration from early-’70s Sly & theFamily Stone and the glistening soft rock of Mirage-era Fleetwood Mac. But in a stark contrast to the track’sradiant synth and rapturous harmonies, “Problems” centers on Francis’s exactingintrospection. “It’s about being half-in and half-out of a relationship, andhow untenable that is,” he says. “I wrote it at a time when I really couldn’tmaintain a relationship, because I had too many issues with myself that neededto be addressed.”
Graced with asmoldering slide-guitar solo from the legendary Derek Trucks, “Can’t Stop theRain” arrives as the first unabashedly hopeful moment on In Plain Sight. “I wrote that with my buddy David Shaw, who came upwith the refrain and this idea that even though life’s going to throw all thisshit at you, there’s still so many things to be grateful for,” says Francis. Propelledby the track’s cascading piano lines and wildly soaring vocals, that refraintakes on an unlikely anthemic power as Francis shares a bit of gently expressedencouragement: “You can’t stop the rain/It’s always coming down/It’s alwaysgonna fall/But you’re not gonna drown.”
On theguitar-heavy and glorious “Prometheus,” Francis nods to the Greek myth of theTitan god who stole fire from Mount Olympus and gave it to the humans. Aspunishment, Prometheus spent eternity chained to a rock as an eagle visitedeach day to peck out his liver—which then grew back overnight, only to be eatenagain the following day in a neverending cycle of torment. “That song came fromthe lowest ebb of quarantine, when Chicago was literally on fire,” Francissays. “It came to me while I was driving around all these abandoned streets inthe middle of the night, and turned into a song about facing my problems withaddiction and feeling like I’m chained to this set of compulsions.” Threadedwith plainspoken confession (“It’s not in my nature to try to do better”), thetrack features a sprawling synth arrangement informed by the many hours Francisspent playing the St. Peter’s pipe organ. “I call that section of the song ‘ThePope,’” he says. “It’s this grand, powerful entry that’s sort of sinister, andthen it just drops away.”
By the end of hissurreal and sometimes eerie experience of living at the church—“I’m convinced thatthe stairway leading to the choir loft where I used to practice is haunted,” henotes—Francis had found his musicality undeniably elevated. “Because I wasforced into this almost monastic existence and was alone so much of the time, Icould play as often and as long as I wanted,” he says. “I ended up becomingsuch a better pianist, a better writer, a better reader of music.” Dedicated toa woman named Lil (the de facto leader of the St. Peter’s congregation), In Plain Sight ultimately reveals thepossibility of redemption and transformation even as your world falls apart.
“When I startedthe process of writing these songs, I was so emotionally out-of-sorts and reallykind of hopeless that I’d be able to come up with anything,” says Francis. “Butthen I sat down and started working, and embraced whatever inspiration came myway. Sometimes it felt like beating my head against a wall, but I tried totrust that it would lead somewhere. The whole thing was like a weird dream—thisvery strange time of terrible, wonderful isolation.”
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