June 20, 2010

Album Review: Francis and the Lights' It'll Be Better

New York City's Francis and the Lights are an oddity in the independent pop scene. For starters, they bare an unfortunate target on their backs simply for trying to become seriously cool artists despite their affiliation with having attended a wealthy, private college nestled away in a residential Connecticut community (Their friends and fellow alumni include MGMT.) That same higher education may have led them to take on a pioneering, unconventional direction in releasing their music, as well. In 2008, the band registered itself as a company ("Francis and the Lights, LLC") in order to accept a $100,000 investment from a music group instead of opting to sign a traditional contract with a record label. After a series of EPs, tackling Kanye West, opening for rising hip-hop star, Drake and garnering acclaim for their choreographed live shows, the Lights are ready to shine on their full-length debut, It'll Be Better.

As the brainchild of the eccentric, fashionable Francis Farewell Starlite, he and the Lights have drawn comparisons in the past to pop innovators, Prince and Peter Gabriel to more current musicians such as Jamie Lidell and Chromeo. It'll Be Better sees the band continuing to approach these influences, yet carving out their own confident, unique niche with a hybrid indie pop, funk and R&B sound. It's evidenced early on the album's first and title track, "It'll Be Better," a simple acoustic and percussion number that sounds less like NYC and more like warm, Swedish twee pop. Followed by the sunny, light FM synth-driven tune, "In a Limousine," it makes for a pretty impressionable opening one-two punch. "For Days," and the sequential "Knees to the Floor" on the other hand demonstrate Starlite's smooth, soulful vocals at their finest, while the album's lead single, "Darling, It's Alright" is where the funkiness really kicks in. Starlight digs deep into his inner James Brown here during the song's chorus, and if the track's music video is any indication, it looks like his dance moves are right up there with The Godfather of Soul's. "Going Out" is more of the same funk pop heard earlier, making it a wallflower in comparison to those standouts, while "Tap the Phone"'s mid-tempo, cool piano riff offers a nice change of R&B pace. Finally, "Get In the Car" concludes the album in a rather quiet, loungey way, which is a stark contrast to how this album begin.

The flow of It'll Be Better is perhaps its biggest strength, as Starlite's lyrics narrate a well-crafted, sweet love story that begins in the title track and ties the loose ends together during the closer. If there is anything to be improved on here, it's that the eight tightly knit songs included on It'll Be Better make for a brief listen. It would also benefit to get a stronger sense of identity among each track, as the mid-album point sounds a bit indifferent and homogeneous. Overall, Francis and the Lights' debut is a promising release that sees these Wesleyan alumni veering away from Prince comparisons but still using the best of funky retro pop to illuminate a fresh new sound.

Francis and the Lights' It'll Be Better will be released July 20, 2010 on Cantora Records.

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