They say it’s better to travel than to arrive.
Conceived and largely written on the road whilst touring the well received I Have Not Yet Begun To Fight, Franc Cinelli’s new album The Marvel Age rumbles out of the groove like a battered freight train, each boxcar a different story, every station strange, and strangely familiar.
An Italian raised in London, Cinelli’s early influences were as disparate as Dylan, Springsteen and The Police. His introduction to playing was a violin, but with a catalogue like that ringing in his ears, it wouldn’t be long before the guitar began to shape his early forays into writing. His recorded career, which includes an early effort under the name Goodtimes Goodtimes, has shaped his music into a blend of those influences, adding the occasional song in his native language and a sprinkling of US and African roots in the forms of Delta and Sahara Blues. The Marvel Age, his second full studio release under his own name, represents the best of those blends whilst allowing for the addition of a rare pop element, the focus of which has elevated some of the tracks from good to great. These songs were born on the road but raised in the studio, with half an eye on how they’ll play to suburban audiences far from the seed of the story.
A case in point is opener Alchemy. Straight away, Cinelli’s Tom Waits-lite baritone is an arresting focus, as is the bass underpinning the busy melody; the bass is a constant and inventive partner throughout the album. Alchemy is a pop song that’s been scrubbed vigorously to take the smooth edges off, revealing the guts of a tune that’s oxidised on contact with the air and assumed the lustre of melodic verdigris. It’s a patination that runs through the album and perfectly fits the down-home, faded denim and scuffed-boot ethic of the road-honed troubadour. The repeated refrain ‘A rare find’ stays with you long after the song has finished.
Travelling Alone introduces the first direct reference to the road, that pre-requisite for any restless songwriter. There’s a harmonica line reminiscent of early Crowded House or pre-fame INXS (other Antipodean bands are available) and a ramshackle, garage-rock structure that puts you in mind of 70s and 80s blue-collar sounds; wide-screen but intimate. Across The Slipstream is similar in feel and includes a nice tempo change two-thirds of the way through. When Cinelli sings ‘The indelible spirit of that big blue sky / Is in every song of love I sing’ it’s a neat summation of the open space he craves and returns to again and again, additional evidence that the majority of these songs were begun, and belong, on the road.
Down And Down starts as a loping lament, the lovelorn singer standing on ‘..the corner of Vine’ and ‘howling at the moon’. It ends by ratcheting up the speed, employing fuzz guitars and backing vocals, the hopelessness of the situation twisting knife-like in the singer’s gut. Messy and controlled at the same time, it’s a playful, irregular finish to a song that might have ended conventionally and been the worse for it.
In contrast, Blindsided is an upright piano ballad that nicely balances the previous storm. All the frustration that bled into Down And Down’s squall is washed away, leaving half-whispered regrets and the merest hint of a better day. The change in pace also showcases Cinelli’s ability to do more than rail against injustices, perceived or real. It’s very easy to empathise with the characters in Blindsided, the hurt and the hurting that’s partially resolved by dancing ’..in my kitchen / ‘Till the morning’. There’s a nice, and knowing, reference to the King of Widescreen balladry too, Springsteen’s Thunder Road the focus of an attempt to share and halve the protagonists pain. Bruce is almost too easy a target reference for this album’s bruised tales, but it’s hard to argue with Thunder Road on any level and it feels in keeping with the music.
Proving that he’s a dab hand at pacing a set, Cinelli then hits you with Breakers; ‘Know I never meant to cause you sorrow / But there comes a point where I just can’t stay’. It’s an obvious single, motoring along on a Tom Petty riff and a simple, try-not-to-sing-along chorus. A belter of a song, proving that the direct approach, if orchestrated properly, still yields lasting results.
Breakers also continues the travellers theme of the album, repeated again in more primal form by follow-up Animals; ‘Say yes! It’s all ahead now / For a brand new start, nothing could get in our way’. It’s not often you hear the word ‘gnashers’ in a lyric, but Cinelli gets away with it here, using the slow build verses to reach deep for meaning, ‘..rummaging through the trash cans’ for a sense of belonging and meaning. The song, sunk as it is in its metaphorical gutter, affords rare glimpses of the stars with the occasional keyboard accents and a wall of ‘I’m Not In Love’ vocals that ride the coda to its finish.
The album’s last three songs dive deeper into the mythology of the traveller. Blue is a searingly honest, almost pitiful cry for love by way of acceptance, the principal offering themselves wholly and without prejudice to someone who remains tantalisingly out of sight, never entering the lyric and helping Cinelli to conclude the song successfully. ‘Please don’t hesitate to be / Everything you need to be / I want you just the way you are’ he sings to a mid-tempo ELO tune stripped of its Jeff Lynne embellishment. Save for a subtle keyboard line, it remains simple and unadorned. It could have tripped over into schmaltz but Cinelli is too clever for that, and he backs it up with the proto-rocker Driver, all blues guitar and cloudy bass on a tale how to keep going, whatever or wherever you are.
Had it been chosen as the final track, it’s last lyric would have been a perfect end to the journey, but ‘Drive on driver, you’ve a story to tell’ makes way for Leave Here Running. The half-spoken, half sung lyric over a drone enhanced with odd lines of resonator guitar gathers up everything that’s come before it and summarises the joy and pain of the itinerant life. There’s fear here too, Cinelli wondering if anyone will throw him a line, but it’s quickly dispelled in fits of bravado and the realisation that once a journey has started, it can’t stop. The song adds layer upon layer of sound until the last verse, when he distills the essence of The Marvel Age in four lines, ‘To ask why is to live / The instinct tells you to kick / Keep working to understand / Keep trying to be a better man’, all of this over strummed ever-more insistent strumming until it dies and fades to an end, the journey disappearing into the horizon line.
There’s a solid heft to this album that becomes more apparent on repeated listens. The themes are deeply embedded, sometimes obvious, sometimes requiring an effort on behalf of the listener, but always rewarding. In Cinelli’s case, it clearly is better to travel, but in doing so, he may just have arrived. The Marvel Age summons images of endless horizons, straight rails, and songs sung for a place to sleep; jump the train and listen.
Review by: Paul Woodgate
Out Now via SongCircle Records
Order via Amazon here
Album Launch Show
September 23 London, Servant Jazz Quarters BUY TICKETS