I Was Here First
An angry man, scaling the cliffs of coherence and only rarely reaching the top.

MUSICREC: Fran Smith – Live at The Sage Gateshead

The term “singer-songwriter” has turned into a slur. It has become associated with images of pretentious young snots in too-tight jeans wandering in and out of coffee shops, toting fashionably-stained acoustic guitars upon which they play cynically self-centred and derivative love songs at an audience that just can’t seem to care. The phrase has become a by-word for overly-sentimental pap written by people who think “heart-strings” are a synonym for “purse-strings”, and that tugging at the former will undoubtedly loosen the latter.

Thankfully though, there are artists who know how to distil sadness into a song without making it feel like a cash-grab; they’re few and far between, but they exist. And Fran Smith is among them. A young songwriter hailing from Newcastle, she combines graceful piano compositions with a lyrical talent that manages to be intelligent without coming off as smug or gimmicky (I’m looking right at you, Arctic Monkeys). She’s recently released her first EP, titled “Fran Smith – Live at The Sage Gateshead”, which is available here.

We Will Have No More Marriages
Smith sets the tone for the entire CD with a delicate piano that teeters on the brink of hopefulness without ever quite spilling over the edge. After letting the piano linger in the air for a few moments her voice comes in, low, slow and heavy with something like regret. That’s not to say the song is a sad one; there’s an element of smirking defiance present when Fran sings:

“And let them all say “she drowned in sin”
‘Cos only you and I know just how true I’ve been.”

But this defiance is cut with a kind of peaceful surrender. It’s something happier than melancholy,
but it’s not far off.

Take These Bones
The opening track of the EP showcases Fran’s skill at crafting a beautiful piano line, but it’s not until this track that we really get a sense of her ability to write a good hook. The song is a faintly jaunty tune with a killer chorus; the line “remember you’re taxing the poor” will be bouncing around your head for days after hearing this song, and her obviously-Northern accent adds a certain charm to the lyric. It looks good written down but only really comes alive when you hear her sing it in her inimitable style.

1,035 Days
It’s easy to talk about the lyrics of the album; they are very much the focus of the songwriting. More than anything, the voice and the music dance to the lyric’s beat and on the entire EP it’s never more noticeable than in this track. As Fran describes in the pre-song preamble, it’s “not a very happy song”. The song is a gentle drift through the slow death of a relationship as she picks out tiny pinpricks of pain through the lyrics and the occasionally-atonal piano. This track is that heavy, grey knot in the pit of your stomach that rises at that moment when you realise you’ve lost something very dear to you, somehow managing to seem insubstantial whilst still being powerful.

Orion
This is the song that you will remember. If you forget everything else, this is what will stand out in your memory. Inspired by her love of astrology, this song is a lonely waltz that showcases Fran Smith’s fantastic lyrical ear. “It startles like birds/or like four-letter words/When you light up/ Orion” she sings above the beautifully simple piano line.

Bee-Lines
The closing song starts as a slow ballad with the verses being reminiscent of some of Anna Nalick’s gentler tracks, before a soaring, cathartic chorus rises over everything else in the song. “Orion” is the centrepiece of the album, no doubt, but the chorus here is definitely the high point. The piano breakdown near the end is nearly perfect, before it segues back into the beautiful chorus. In an ideal world, this song would be the soundtrack to every vaguely romantic scene in the world.

This is a new artist who deserves to be huge. For the hipsters among you who’d like to hitch your wagon to an artist before she’s discovered by the masses, or for those of you who just like a nice bit of old-fashioned lyricism with your lilting piano pieces, Fran Smith is something to hear. Her music doesn’t break the mould, nor does she spend her time trying to make something new for the sake of making something new; instead she writes old-fashined songs that echo the beautiful obscurity of Leonard Cohen’s poetry by way of Sara Bareilles’ most heartbreaking piano-ballads. And for that, she’s entirely unique.

You can find Fran Smith on Myspace at http://www.myspace.com/fransongs and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/fransongslive

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