Stewart Francke has changed his spots. Sort of. On the one hand, the singer-songwriter has shed the mantle he’s worn so long for some new duds. On the other hand, any baby boomer born and raised in Detroit is never more than a half-step away from Motown. That’s what Francke has given us: A Motown album, from the opening sax riff recalling Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, to the “hidden” track you’ll find if you let the CD run long enough — a cover of “My Girl” recorded live in Studio A at the Motown Museum.
Still, this is more than a safe, back-to-my-roots R&B exploration. Francke actually infuses traditional Detroit soul with a transcendent quality seldom found anywhere. This is most evident on the trilogy “From Where Shall Comfort Come?,” “Surviving the Good Times” and “God I Need an Answer,” where the songwriter transforms haikulike musings into angelic anthems directly addressing the deity. There has always been a self-conscious earnestness to Francke’s writing, but this time it’s more of a stream of consciousness that throws one beyond the basics to the ether.
Musically, Francke achieves this transition by revamping his instrumental lineup. There is the requisite underpinning of strong bass and drum rhythms, plus a soaring quality coming from liberal use of strings and a masterful performance by jazz guitarist Robert Tye. His playing on the pieces and interludes in between throw this music into a satisfying ethereal soundscape. Not to mention the vocal assistance from members of Commissioned, including a rap on “From Where Shall Comfort Come?”
Something of a concept album, What We Talk Of … When We Talk is thoroughly Detroit. “Touching the Glory” references meeting with an old friend, reminiscing about growing up in the suburbs and being warned not to cross Eight Mile Road, while “American Twilights” speaks about a black man getting pulled over by police in the suburbs. This is the sound track and the life that many of us have lived. Francke captures it all.
Larry Gabriel is the Metro Times editor. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.