Rhode Island resident and self-styled hip hop agent-provocateur Paul 'Sage' Francis returns with his impassioned new album Li(f)e, released on Anti-Records. Francis started as a battle champion and poet before 2005's 'A Healthy Distrust' made his name with a timely commendation of corporate greed, war-mongering and American complacency.
Fast-forward to 2010 and Francis has taken an early lyric 'Life is just a lie with an 'f' in it' as the title to his album. The focus this time is a rather clumsy attempt to point the finger at organised religion, though this is far from consistent throughout. The cover is a Shepard Fairey commissioned piece depicting Francis shrouded in a golden light but framed by the crosshairs of a gun. Quite.
Still, on paper at least, Francis is now backed by the likes of Brian Deck (Modest Mouse, Iron and Wine) and cohorts Jim Becker and Tim Rutili of Chicago outfit Califone. The problem is putting his lyrics against a quieter backdrop dilutes their impact.
Opener 'Little Houdini' is a story-song centred on a career thief who breaks out to visit dying relatives. It sounds farcical, but it's apparently true. And it works. The lyrical clarity is dazzling, the pace relentless and the poignancy stark.
'His Mom had weeks to live
And Chris had years to serve
They were within shouting distance
But I don't think he heard her final words.'
Death Cab for Cutie's Chris Walla arrives for 'Three Sheets to The Wind' and later 'London Bridge.' The former has an Offspring feel as the duo trade rhymes and sung vocals atop a grungy guitar. It's radio-friendly at least. 'London Bridge' has the same beat and stab melody as The Street's 'Fit But You Know It.' The coincidence ends there however, as Francis warbles the cringe-worthy 'That wall in China ain't so great I built a bridge over a hymen / It goes up to the sky and mother mary is crying.' A blue schott top and fake tan never seemed so poetic.
'I Was Zero' uses a ridiculous refrain ('10 years ago I was 22 / 20 years ago I was 12' etc) that sounds like a school song taught to children to learn their times tables. It doesn't work nor does 'Polterzeitgeist,' the clues in the title.
The retrospective spoken verse of 'The Best of Times' however, sits perfectly over French composer's Yann Tiersen's minimalist keys, with the guitars not kicking in until the halfway point. It serves as a perpetuating personal history of Francis' youth; culminating in Francis asking if he will live to see his kids' kids? Unfortunately it's too little to late.
The story follows Francis losing his mind when he posted a love note into the wrong locker at school; learning to forge his parent's signature when he was failing; faking an eye test so he could wear glasses; and dreaming of being a cripple so he would get the sympathy. The social commentary is austere once more and should've remained the focus for the whole album.
For the most part two different styles seem at odds with each other, the indie-hip hop dynamism not quite reigning supreme. In truth, this could've and should've been better. Like your first Subway in months, it looks good but it's ultimately disappointing and you won't be rushing back.