The evolution has been gradual and not without its difficulties and now, you’d think, it’s complete. It’s been almost twenty-five years from ‘this is not a song about politics’ to ‘this is a song for all the broken and the walking wounded, for all the isolated and secluded’ and, in the decades since, The Frank And Walters have slowly gravitated in from the margins and the grassy verges. And, along the way, they’ve put one of their most potent weapons beyond use.
As Ken Sweeney – a former label-mate of theirs at Setanta Records – pointed out recently on Tom Dunne’s radio show on Newstalk, there was a time when every big Frank And Walters statement ended with an inevitable assault. When, in the best traditions of the Irish showbands and the kids in The Bowery, they sent every listener home in a sweat ;- it wasn’t a real show or a proper album if it didn’t climax in a torrent of the loud and the furious. Or if Paul Linehan didn’t stretch his voice to far beyond the point of breaking.
I’ve remarked before how, during the band’s first flushes, Niall Linehan the group’s original guitarist – often played his instrument as if he was attacking it with a breeze-block. Yes, he had plenty of finesse coursing through his fingers too but, when the going got hard and heavy, he could match the best of them for speed and squall. But the familiar frenzies that have consistently hall-marked many of The Franks’ staples are missing from ‘Songs For The Walking Wounded’, the band’s recently released seventh studio album, it’s most sombre and easily it’s best and most full-bodied since ‘The Grand Parade’.
I’ve been unable to view The Franks from any sort of critical distance for years now, and I’ve dealt with that in a couple of previous posts, which are available to read here and here. But I still get the same thrill about every new Franks song now as I did when our paths first crossed in Cork over a quarter of a century ago and, I suspect, I always will. Over that time I’ve watched them – from exile, for the most part – become far more confident in their own ability and far more self-sufficient in how they realise the ambitions they’ve set since. And so ‘Songs For The Walking Wounded’ is exactly that, with the band in introspective and reflective form on what is clearly their most considered and mature record to date. A curious tension runs through it from the get-go and, in every sense – and in every key scene – it’s a revelation.
Rather than move out of the parish entirely, The Franks have used the three years since ‘Greenwich Mean Time’ to finish a considerable home renovation instead. The glass and chrome surround is new but, inside it, the old structures are as sound as they’ve ever been. In keeping more with the make-over spirit of ‘Room To Improve’ than the [funda]mental engineering challenge of ‘Grand Designs’, they’ve carefully replaced the plumbing and the electrics but have resisted the urge to dismantle the kitchen sink. Indeed restraint, in multiple forms, is a recurring theme here ;- and for all of the marvellous string arrangements and the smart production twists, this is still a record in check. And no more so than on the gorgeous guitar break on the lead single, ‘We Are The Young Men’, which owes far more to Depeche Mode’s ‘Music For The Masses’ than it does to ‘Kennedy’ or ‘Brassneck’. Indeed guitarist Rory Murphy’s influence on this record is enormous ;- nimble, sharp and comfortable across a huge span of styles, he is, alongside Conor Lehane, Midleton’s greatest ever gift to Cork’s broader cause.
There was a time when, in times of doubt, The Franks reached for what they trusted most and when they rarely ventured beyond the constraints and conventions of that which made them ;- indie guitars. This time around, the influences and the shadows stretch far wider ;- two of the more dominant references on ‘Songs For The Walking Wounded’ are the layered American FM sound of The Cars and the fragile sensibility of ‘Heartworm’, the exceptional 1995 album by Dublin band, Whipping Boy. But while the album magpies liberally, it is still as identifiably a Franks record as any and the soft references to an assortment of characters – Jodie, Brice, Tinkerbelle and Rosie – are among the more familiar tricks from their bag. But it’s Paul Linehan’s imperious vocal form throughout that really brings the record back home.
The grenades go off early and often. Cillian Murphy’s spoken passage on the excellent ‘Stages’ sees the Cork-born actor channel Whipping Boy’s Fearghal McKee over a riff that borrows from Billy Idol’s ‘White Wedding’ and, placed immediately on the track-listing after the boisterous lead, ‘We Are The Young Men’, opens the order with real heft. ‘Circumstance’ also nods to Whipping Boy, and particularly to ‘Personality’ and ‘Users’, two of the lesser-referenced tracks on ‘Heartworm’. But there’s plenty more to occupy the anoraks ;- the hall-mark keyboard sounds of A-ha and Joy Division primary among them. Credit here to producer and engineer Cormac O’Connor, who alicadoos will remember as one of the principals behind Benny’s Head, a Cork-based outfit who rarely chanced their velveteen pop sounds outside of the security of the studio walls.
There’s even a trippy Beatles/Pink Floyd diversion towards the end of the disconcerting ‘Father’ – a possible companion piece to Little Green Cars’ ‘Brother’ ? – and, when you think you’ve heard it all, The Franks evoke the ghost of Peter Sarstedt’s ‘Where Do You Go To My Lovely’ on ‘Riviera’, replete with cutesy, Parisienne-style female vocals. Set up by a terrific, rumbling arrangement, the wordless chorus comes out of the curve :- it’s one of their least obvious songs ever, as good as anything they’ve committed to tape.
And after ten sharp, snappy pop songs, The Franks are gone ;- no hanging around, no filler. Like Cork’s hurlers, they’ll always be there and, irrespective of how they’re viewed outside of the county, their history alone means they’re always capable of an upset. At their most lethal when the chips are down and when they’re in the long grass, come the All-Stars awards at the end of the year, The Franks will be there or thereabouts.