The Art of Tea by Michael Franks

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The Art of Tea by Michael Franks

Flushed somewhere between the expert jazz rock of Steely Dan, Bob James and James Taylor's smoother craftsman-like moments lies Michael Franks.  And on his major label debut, 1976's The Art of Tea, Michael Franks sounds pretty damn convincing — especially if you're listening to him on a yacht!

The Art of Tea was released on the famous Warner Bros.' subsidiary, Reprise Records, which Franks was signed to after he made his first album on the Brut Record label (yes, friends, we are talking about a defunct label that was owned and operated by the discount cologne company. Hilarious.) 

Indeed, Franks was a perfect artist for Brut Records.  In some ways, he is absolutely a musical equivalent of that fragrance.  He is not unsophisticated and undeniably agreeable — though there is an element of evenness in his vocal delivery that makes him feel somewhat like a Central-Park-bootlegged version of some of his (frankly, better) major label contemporaries.  And that's probably why he never went gold or platinum on this higher-profile record.

But, truly, Franks is no slouch as a composer on Tea as evidenced by the musically imaginative and lyrical opener "Nightmoves," the breezy ballad "St. Elmo's Fire," and the should-have-been-minor-hits "Monkey See-Monkey Do" and "I Don't Know Why I'm So Happy I'm Sad."  And, boy, is he assisted marvelously by a truly platinum cast of supporting musicians: Larry Carlton, Joe Sample, David Sanborn, Michael Brecker — I mean, come on! 

Put simply, The Art of Tea pretty much sounds like the diet version of Paul Simon's Still Crazy After All These Years (released one year prior in 1975.) Yet, Simon's album is a classic and was named 'album of the year' at the 1976 Grammy Awards.  So, truly, you could do well worse than listening to this absolutely-worthy, consistent cousin of an album, wonderfully delivered by Michael Franks. 

This Is: Fastball


A deliberate rip-off of the Spotify series of the same name, here is This Is: Fastball. Fastball, in my opinion, is Austin TX's finest modern rock band, but is criminally-overrated.  Best known for its hits "The Way," "Out of My Head," and "Fire Escape," This Is: Fastball contains all those hits and only scratches the surface with the essential album tracks.  Only an introduction to a seriously talented group, indeed. 

Emma Jean by Lee Fields and The Expressions

Emma Jean by Lee Fields and The Expressions

Much like Charles Bradley, gifted soul-singer Lee Fields had spent years in the "minors" before achieving relative notoriety in the late 2000s.  Bradley's shtick is more intriguing because he came out of nowhere and became popular as a senior citizen without a single previous album to his name.  Fields' newfound success is perhaps sweeter though, because he had spent the last 35 years putting out an impressive string of records that did what most records do when they lack a large launching pad that can lift them to the masses—flop!

In those years, his only legitimate claim to fame was a single that hit number 91 on the R&B charts in 1986.  That single brought Fields some attention.  But it wasn't from the average music listener.  It was from underground hip-hop producers who began sampling his songs to make their own art.  

But life, as we know, can be quite funny. In 2012, the 61-year old Lee fields finally received significant attention on his own with Faithful Man, which was the closest thing he had to a hit record. It reached 68 on the R&B charts, received an impressive 7.0 by Pitchfork and was generally received warmly by writers of other prominent music publications.  2014's Emma Jean proves that the success of Faithful Man wasn't a fluke.  There isn't a bad cut on this record, but, like many of his previous albums, the most fantastic quality Emma Jean is its aesthetic.  

Emma Jean is not only influenced by old soul records of the 60s, it actually sounds like one.  It's an odd slice of time that you can't help but marvel at.  Of course, that's not really an achievement to write home about by itself.  To make a record that has the old-time aesthetic of 60s soul music, all you need is the idea.  The sonics can be created with relative ease using studio trickery and all you need is capable instrumentalists to lay down the tracks. But Fields is the perfect artist to front such a concept, because he really can sing! Naturally, he's fairly outstanding.  But, the fact that he is 63 is remarkable.  Why? The James Brown and Wilson Pickett records that everyone fell in love with 50 years ago were the works of singers in their 20s or 30s.  And at 63, Lee Fields sounds like one of their contemporaries—though certainly not an equal.  That alone may make this album a must listen for 2014.  But it helps that it is simply a damn good album, too. 

Emma Jean by Lee Fields and The Expressions