There have been several singers who have been likened to Stevie Nicks. However, none of them have been men. Frankie Lee proves the exception, the comparison particularly striking on the mid-tempo guitar twanged Know By Now, a song about how people inevitably let you down, but evident to greater or lesser extent in his nasal southern drawl throughout.
Born in Stillwater, Minnesota, near the Mississippi and raised in Minneapolis, Lee took to music after his father, a local punk musician, died in a motorcycle accident when Frankie was 12. Music ran in the family, his mother having toured by Johnny Cash’s brother, Tommy, so it was no real surprise when Lee started hanging out with other musician at local clubs, soaking up the sounds.
Dropping out of college, where he was studying law, at 20 to take to the road, he first headed to Nashville before moving to Austin, where he ended up making furniture for Townes Van Zandt’s son and playing his first show to a proper paying audience.
At 22, things hit a dark patch when he was prescribed methamphetamines for narcolepsy and developed a serious drug habit. Eventually clean, he headed for Los Angeles, hooking up with REM and U2 engineer Patrick McCarthy who taught him how to put on record the music in his head while Lee also began making a name playing around the local clubs.
In 2010, he returned to Minnesota, writing the songs that would form his self-released EP Middle West. After three years working on a pig farm and writing more songs, and now based in Milwaukee, he’s signed to the prestigious Loose label and has just released his fully-fledged debut album American Dreamer. It may feel like a culmination, but it’s just the start.
While Nicks may be there in the voice, the music carries the less unusual echoes of Dylan and Springsteen. On the choogling rhythm of Buffalo might also be heard shades of Creedence Clearwater Revival and it’s perhaps no coincidence that the country rolling opening track, High And Dry, a banjo and fiddle backed song about growing your own food and the need for self-sufficiency in the face of an uncaring system, opens with a line about being born “outside of Green River”.
Social commentary is there too on Where Do We Belong which addresses the way developers may have destroyed the identity of American towns through homogeneity, but not the people, a theme revisited on the five and half minute slow, brushed drums East Side Blues (“a stranger in your own damn town”), the first take of the first song he recorded for the album.
Working with simple melodies and instrumentation, he’s very good at creating a dusty, blue collar wistful melancholy, a perfect case in point being the Springsteenesque, harmonica-accompanied ‘driving to you’ wearied reflectiveness of Queen of Carolina. Elsewhere, the more electric mid-tempo Black Dog with its ‘don’t swallow the lies you’re told lyrics’ suggests Neil Young, while the scuffed Honest Man takes a softer, open-heart approach. Finally, the album closes up on the slow waltzing Horses, a dreamy love-song reverie (“time alone is all that I got left”) with plucked fiddle and harmonica, and, then, the clearly Lennon-influenced piano-based (Lee switched from guitar after crushing three fingers in a farming accident) title track, which, as you might assume, returns to social comment with a strings-adorned lyric about the rich/poor divide and, as he’s described it, a “generation raised on fear and the pursuit of fame and wealth, whose parents buried them in debt and expectations.”
Now turned 30, after everything Lee’s been through and worked on to get to this point, the release of the album may seem like the vindicating culmination of the journey. Actually, it’s just the start of what promises to be a very exciting and significant new arrival on the Americana scene.
Review by: Mike Davies
Out Now via Loose Music
Order via Amazon