For the teenage Franz Robert Wild, there was nothing he wanted to do more than play the guitar and write songs, he just had to figure out how to turn his own love of classic songwriters into original material of the same kind of quality. Not only that, but growing up in the south of France, all of the music he loved was sung in English and that’s how he heard his own songs. So Franz set about learning the subtle nuance of writing in a foreign language. It’s taken some years of determination, but now hooked up with local, sympathetic sound engineer Jezz and producer Oli Le Baron, he has an album, The French House to be proud of.
Reading the biography on Franz Robert Wild’s website, there’s a story that I’m sure many will recognise and identify. What comes across is the drive and determination to find expression as a songwriter, but in Franz’s case there is the extra difficulty of a passion for writing in English. Although that’s something that so many of us take for granted, for Frenchman, Franz and many others across Europe, it’s the ultimate twist in the songwriters story and perhaps the difference in being accepted into the wider musical world or not. Even after the world music boom that has made a virtue of national and regional distinction, English, or probably more specifically the American version of it, is still the dominant form for music.
Franz describes a familiar tale of growing up with records in the house and the radio on. Having older siblings was an important part of the mix, when as teenagers they started to add to their parents’ record collection. It all added fuel to the fire growing inside the young Franz, a passion that ultimately would have to find an outlet. Importantly he highlights this as the age of Abba, a hugely successful act who also made the same decision to sing in English in order to reach an audience outside of their homeland.
Of course it’s one thing to have the desire to be a songwriter, but something else again to be able to do it. Franz is very honest in describing the childish naivety with which he first recorded his own voice a cappella, before getting his first guitar, the nylon strung acoustic that has given so many their first musical tool. He’s also honest about his first efforts at songwriting not really coming up to scratch. It’s one thing to write in your native tongue, but there’s a certain irony in the fact that the standards of lyricism required by French music set the bar very high. This seems to have added an extra anxiety in trying to reach a similar standard of English for Franz.
It’s all added up to The French House being some years in the making. Along the way there have been some false starts, near things, but also some help and ultimately, a lot of self-belief. You get the sense of a man with a drive and determination, tenacity even, that has impressed many on his journey to making this record. Franz has grabbed every opportunity to learn more about his chosen art form, even when that course has offered up hard lessons along the way, he’s taken them in his stride.
It’s over the last few years that things have finally started to take shape. In 2010 Franz ended up amongst the 10 finalists in the televised M6 Musiclive competition and struck up a relationship with producer and multi instrumentalist Oli LeBaron, which led to the making of The French House. Franz would record demos and the pair worked on the principal that if that recording was up to scratch they would build the track around it. It’s all been mixed and mastered by the enigmatically named Jezz, who Franz seems to have known for some years. As productive as that trio have proved it’s still taken some time to get the record finished and set for release.
Well, his persistence and patience have finally paid off. There’s an anthemic quality to the opener, Only One Shot, which is urged along by a thumping bass riff and driving acoustic guitar, before rising upwards on a swoon of pedal steel, adding some sumptuous Gypsy violin, reminiscent of Scarlet Rivera on Dylan’s Desire and other musical embellishments. The layers of guitars and interjections from the mandolin build as the track moves to its climax, with Franz sounding suitable impassioned. The message is that we are just one shot from the grave, although whether Franz is threatening of threatened is more fluid as he admits to being, “Tangled up in a confused situation.” The song poignantly suggests both that the wolf will bear its teeth to protect its own and also that a gun can be hidden under a clerics robe.
Gone, Gone, Gone is dreamy but it’s an uneasy sleep as Franz laments the slippery slopes of climate change and the problems we are creating. Again the track makes good use of Oli’s skills, introducing banjo and percussion rather than drums into the mix, while Franz strums on a resonator. The drums are back for Go Get Lost, however, with the kick underpinning the banjo and harmonica intro with a solid punchy beat. With extra distortion added to his voice, Franz lashes out at someone who he never wishes to see again.
The pace drops again for Gospel, Jesus & Your Blues, a song that seems to be about the struggles Franz has had in trying reach this point, the doubts, but ultimately his faith in the need to keep going. Melodically it is suggestive of George Harrison, with Oli’s bass, electric guitar and keyboards adding to a wistful feeling. There’s a dreamy quality to the following Ain’t Gonna Walk No More, which boasts one of the boldest arrangements, including some slightly skewed contributions from trumpet and trombone. They come in like waves with clattering percussion, while there’s a ukulele keeping the song moving along and the slightly disconcerting sound of running water lurking in the mix.
I Really Blog You belies its quirky title with one of the record’s prettiest tunes. It positively glides along with a spring heeled stride and once more George Harrison comes to mind, while the “Once upon a time in cyber-land,” is a neat way of expressing that reality has been put on hold for the duration of this track.
There are two songs about American icons and outsiders, The Lonely Stranger (Cynthia Ann Parker’s Lament) and Free (The Ballad Of John Dillinger). The first features a crunching guitar riff, reminiscent of Neil Young’s ragged Americana and tells the tragic story of a woman who was kidnapped and naturalised by the Comanche people. When she was recaptured, she was feted as a symbol of the victory over the vanquished Native Americans, but refused to adapt to white society. In the end, pining for her Comanche family, she simply stopped eating and tragically died. Dillinger meanwhile was one of America’s most infamous outlaws, whose reputation to some degree actually outweighs his crimes. Franz and Oli give his ultimately tragic story the big ballad treatment with layers of strings and the repeated refrain of “And I’m free now yeah…” acting as a fitting coda.
As a pair both of those are strong songs, but the merits of sticking with the record are further proved with Counting Colours, a nicely psychedelic slice of whimsy, with big echoing vocals and slashes of reverb drenched guitars. It’s a standout track, but the tight repetitive groove of Take That Train adds a great contrast. The standard is maintained through the closing two songs, with Unluckies (a slightly awkward title but a lovely song), which had me thinking of Ronnie Lane’s Slim Chance, in a raggle-taggle, organic country song sort of way. Your Body Image, however, returned me to thoughts of George Harrison, but again in a really good way.
The album gets stronger as you play it through and musically the production and recording are excellent and each time you go back, new details emerge as the arrangements have a satisfying and varied complexity. But with the two big songs at the heart of the record, The Lonely Stanger and Free in particular, Franz also shows that he knows how to get into a story and make it work as a song. It’s been quite a journey, but for Franz, his determination to make this work is his great strength and the real story behind The French House, long may it continue.
Review by: Simon Holland