Frazey Ford: U Kin B the Sun review | Alexis Petridis's album of the week

(Arts & Crafts)
The former Be Good Tanyas member develops her intimate version of southern soul – but fills it with strife from relationship breakdowns to gun issues

The lead single from Frazey Ford’s 2015 album Indian Ocean, a coruscating breakup lament called Done, came accompanied by one of the great videos of the last decade. It featured Ford leading a gaggle of glammed-up, righteously pissed-off looking mums through Vancouver, with some of their kids in tow. They march down suburban pavements, dance with abandon and cruise the streets in a battered mobile home. At one point, Ford visits a record store and holds an Otis Redding album up to the camera, which figures.

When Ford’s former bandmate in the Canadian group the Be Good Tanyas, Jolie Holland, struck out on a solo career, she concentrated on paring the band’s rootsy Americana down until it was stark and eerie (her version of their best-known song, The Littlest Birds, dramatically shifted its mood from amiable to chilling). But Ford has developed a sound rooted in warm southern soul. On Indian Ocean, she even employed the old house musicians from Memphis’ Hi Records – men who 40 years previously had played on Al Green’s classic 70s albums and Ann Peebles’ I Can’t Stand the Rain.

Watch the video for The Kids Are Having None of It

In one sense, it was a bold move. The world is hopelessly overstuffed with artists plying variations on retro soul, from aged original practitioners rescued from obscurity by younger enthusiasts to post-Winehouse pop singers and the kind of bands who talk about “real music” and wish to signpost their disdain for the shallow fripperies of modernity. It’s tough to cut through this crowded market, but Ford’s albums do. Despite the presence of musicians who were there the first time around, Indian Ocean never sounded like a Sealed Knot re-creation or shallow pastiche. Ford wrote fantastic songs – everything from acute little character studies to stuff that sounded like gospel – and wove country and jazz into a sound that perfectly fitted her understated voice.

The cover of U Kin B The Sun.

She continues and refines this approach on U Kin B the Sun. The horn arrangements and the Hi Rhythm Section are gone – guitarist Teenie Hodges died before Indian Ocean was released. Its sound is barer: bass pushed to the front, gentle shadings of guitar and keyboards, lots of empty space. And the mood is darker. The lyrics touch on relationship strife in no-punches-pulled style on the bluntly titled Motherfucker; on the survivors of the 2018 Parkland school shooting in The Kids Are Having None of It (“They can’t be bought, they can’t be taught your hate”); and on Ford’s complicated relationship with her parents, whom she has bluntly described as “a complete disaster”. The opening track, Azad, doesn’t make life as the daughter of young hippies constantly on the run from the draft sound like much fun: it takes the sight of a dragonfly to make her realise “there is beauty in this world, so hold it any way you know how”.

In fact, it’s often hard to work out what the lyrics are about. Ford has a habit of smearing words to incomprehensibility, leaving it to the sound of her voice to convey the emotion of a song. Luckily, that’s something her voice is eminently capable of doing. Abundantly aware of the fact that less is more, her vocals are high, airy and textured with a gently fluttering vibrato but, as befits a woman who writes songs called things such as Motherfucker, you’d never describe them as delicate. They’re capable of landing a raw emotional punch or of conveying something more complex. On U and Me, which seems to be another breakup song, her tone switches from warm to wracked and back again, as sadness and loss are tempered by genuine fondness.

For all the darkness of the subject matter, there is a warmth to the album. It makes sense that it comes with a cover dappled by sunlight. This is partly to do with the production which, for all its sparseness, has a lovely organic, intimate feeling – it frequently feels as though you’re eavesdropping on a band playing live – and partly to do with the strength of the melodies: choruses gently surge, vocal harmonies are sparingly applied but beautiful. The exception is the closing title track, which lasts the best part of six minutes. It comes to a halt midway through, then reassembles itself as a thick, dream-like swirl of sound, rich with echoing, multitracked vocals that sound positively ecstatic. As usual, it is hard to make out exactly what they’re singing, beyond the fact that Ford keeps repeating the word “joy”, as if reaffirming her dragonfly-induced childhood revelation about the beauty of the world.

Its mood is heady and infectious, the perfect end to an album that doesn’t grab your attention with pyrotechnic displays, opting instead for a slow-burning, unassuming kind of power: a low-key delight, but a delight all the same.

This week Alexis listened to

Franky Wah: Time After Time (feat Jessie Ware) (Elliot Adamson mix)

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Alexis Petridis

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