by: Kidman J. Williams
Neal Francis defies all the laws in rock music that lead us to believe that great art can only be achieved with drug induced stupors and alcohol fused studio rages. Francis left his destructive ways behind him and forged ahead with a new clarity and sobriety. The Chicago based musician was able to construct an album that evokes the spirit of the 70’s R&B scene while putting his own modern sober stamp on it.
I think knowing where this artist comes from is integral to understanding where this album titled “Changes,” originates. I could get into his influencers, his heroes, and the all-around generic line of musical loves, but we all have ears. This is music for the soul and Francis’ music touches the rhythm that we all follow in mundane lives.
Francis was born, Neal Francis O’Hara, a good Irish Chicago piano prodigy who started playing at four years old. He toured Europe with Muddy Waters’ son (Mud Morganfield) by eighteen. By 2012 he was touring with the popular funk band The Heard. With Francis in the lineup and controlling the creative turning of the band The Heard went from popular to a national act. While they rose to fame, Francis sank deeper into his own vices.
In 2015 Francis was fired from his band. He had lost his apartment, his bankroll, and was close to meeting his maker. One of his alcohol induced seizures later that year led to a broken femur and dislocated arm. This led him to the revelation that he needed to clean up. Francis commented about this time, “When you get close to death like that, you can feel it.”
Francis not only revived his soul, but he has now also redefined soul music with his debut effort Changes that was released back in September of 2019.
Don’t call this a “throwback” people, because GREAT music never goes out of fashion!
From the opening organ chords and horn section of the first song “This Time”, you feel it propelling you into a deep love affair between you and the artist. This song (much like all the songs on this album) wants to make you move with its jazz, blues, and funk fusion. The music itself hits you on a primitive level while the lyrics… the lyrics are thoughtful and sometimes very dark. You really hear Francis’ soul screaming out like therapy.
Don’t let the song’s thick and tasty grooves deceive you. It might have a pop sensibility that forces your feet and body to move, but this song is dark. This is about a man begging God for just one more chance and how this time it is going to be different. One more chance to fly right, hit the ground running, and to live through it all to tell the story.
This Time isn’t some teenager praying to the porcelain Gods swearing he/she will never drink like that again– NO NO! This song is rock bottom. This is a man looking for redemption in a world that he himself built.
On the title song “Changes pt. 1 & 2” Francis keeps that signature blend of funk, jazz, and blues while adding an element of gargantuan grooves reminiscent of the great Pink Floyd. The music takes you on a slow-moving hang glider trimming the treetops of the French Alps. You are hoping not to crash and burn, but it feels inevitable and then BAM! That is when you hear Francis call out “Oh no,” the music changes and blasts this wind lifting you up over the eminent doom.
Francis doesn’t just tell a story with these songs. Unlike a lot of music today, he knows how to create true emotion and story telling with music alone.
“Lauren” is the sixth track on this album and my personal favorite. It is not because of the upbeat nature of the music, it isn’t just because of the dark lyrics which at one point state, “If I died right now you wouldn’t even shed a tear.” The song is so unique in its phrasing. The music and lyrics dance around one another like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers gliding across a star-crossed dance floor filled with hot lava on each side.
“Lauren” is about a guy who was lured in by a woman who professed true adoration and as he crossed state lines for her under false pretenses, she just rips his heart out. She acts like he is just some chump that she can laugh about later with her girlfriends. If I can be so bold, of course I can, it is my writing. Lauren is a real bitch! One can only hope that this isn’t a true story.
Changes is a once in a lifetime album. There aren’t many out there like this, especially in this world where “artists” just put out single after single to fatten their wallets as they sacrifice good art for the number 1 downloaded song on the Billboard.
Francis’ body of work on Changes is the type of music that tantalizes the human soul. It reaches every single emotion and fits into anything you need it for. You can contemplate life while taking a long drive, make love under a starry night, or listen to it after a hard breakup while you cry yourself into acceptance. The music is as artistic as it is catchy and that is no small feat in a world filled with vain parodies of music.
- This Time
- She’s a Winner
- How Have I Lived
- These Are the Days
- Changes (pt. 1 & 2)
- Can’t Live Without Your Love
- Put it in His Hands