Originally twin peaks, the departure of Martin Smyth has seen a change in the topography, meaning I Swear I Flew, the follow up to the eponymous debut is now a solo project for Cornwall’s Joe Francis. Not that he’s entirely alone, with a clutch of musicians providing drums, pedal steel, banjo, slide, fiddle and cello. He’s even recruited Seth Lakeman on various tracks. Nonetheless, it’s the Francis (who’s husky vocal recalls Brian Fallon tinted with Tom Petty) doing the heavy lifting on an album that moves away from the 70s Laurel Canyon sounds of the debut and, for the most, trades in swaggering, upbeat Americana-influenced folk rock tunes of anthemic inclination that, at times, suggest a Cornish Amy Macdonald.
Beginning so quietly you might think you’ve turned your volume down, ‘Platinum And Gold’, opens proceedings in a Proclaimers-like marching beat style and immediately hooks itself into your head, feet tapping involuntarily as it strides along on lyrics calling on someone to get their act and self together (“you’ve got to put a stop to your self-addiction”). Lakeman makes his first appearance, contributing fiddle, tenor guitar and vocals to the equally driving valedictory relationship number ‘Sunlight, Good Roads’, a track Francis describes as his take on a Celtic benediction
If that’s the end of a relationship, dropping the tempo slightly ‘The Lucky Ones’, with its chiming guitar, cascading chords and tumbling chorus, seems to be at the start of one with “nowhere but the stars to go”, reinforcing the sense that this is one of those rare break up albums charged with goodwill rather than resentment.
Drawing on winter spent in the French Alps, ‘The Morning Bell’ (from whence comes the album title) is the first of the softer ballads, a simple acoustic track that nods to Francis’ Paul Simon influences, something equally evident on the cello-accompanied fingerpicked stillness of ‘Dragonfly’. Sandwiched in-between is ‘Things That I’ve Done Wrong’ which, with its tribal beat, slide guitar and bluesy feel is the album’s gutsiest musical offering.
Featuring pedal steel, harmonica, banjo and fiddle, ‘Before The Flood’ with its lyric about the redemptive power of love settles into mid-tempo alt-country rock territory before the album hits the homestretch with ‘Open Heart’, a leaving number (“I cannot make my fortune if I do not deal the cards”) with a Springsteenesque drive and a swelling chorus punch that melds Meatloaf and Chris De Burgh.
The band were originally formed in Ireland while Francis was visiting with Smyth in Donegal and it was here that they were spotted by Cara Dillon who subsequently signed them to her and husband Sam Lakeman’s Charcoal label for the debut album. This goes a long way to explaining the Celtic colours that permeate the songs here, and, in particular, the near six-minute acoustic strummed ‘Banba’s Crown’ which, evocative of Van Morrison and featuring mandolin, fiddle (courtesy of Niall Murphy), pedal steel and banjo, is named for a (it must be said, rather ugly and squat) Napoleonic lookout tower (itself named for the patron goddess of Ireland) overlooking the most northernly tip of the mainland. A reminiscence of a brief but glorious romance, its line about never experiencing the ancient sun setting low over the headland serving as emblematic of regret for things lost or never fulfilled.
Its back seat romance image resurfaces as the album ends with the wistful tour de force that is the heartbreakingly sad and lovely ‘Fireworks Night (Promises We Make)’,a hymn to holding on to the dreams of youth, where Francis, drawing on the intro, essentially reconceives Springsteen’s ‘Thunder Road’ as a harmonica haunted elegiac piano ballad. An album of power and passion, it takes a direct flight to the heart. Join the expedition and scale its heights, the view is magnificent.
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Artist’s website: www.wintermountain.co.uk
‘Sunshine, Good Roads’ live at Straw Bale Studio: