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Lewis Franco: Press

Precious few hepcatamounts swing like Lewis Franco. The central Vermont guitarist, songwriter and bandleader has almost single-handedly kept the jump and jive alive in the Green Mountains, wailing away with swagger and unimpeachable cool for nearly two decades. Backed by an ace band, the Missing Cats, Franco has recently released a new record, With Uncle Joe, Sonny Joe & Grampa Joe. It plays like the cherry on the sundae — or the extra straw in the malt-shop milkshake — on his equally cool and unimpeachable catalog.

In such an established idiom, Franco has no need to reinvent the wheel. If anything, cranky purists would certainly scoff if he tried. As such, the genre's rigid-ish traditions provide both creative freedom — he's unencumbered by delusions of progressive grandeur — and stifling limitation. Admirably, Franco dances a fine line between tribute and innovation, Lindy hopping his way through a selection of classically styled tunes that feel both authentic and fresh. He's a Brian Setzer for the flannel set.

On the opener, "Follow the Golden Goose," Franco sings and swings with almost impossible cool. Thesaurus.com is begging me to use a different adjective for "cool," but when one fits so well, it's hard not to overuse it. The easy, winking charm in his delivery is both seductive and familiar. Blessed with a light, tuneful rasp, Franco beguiles the gleaming Shure 55 into which he's surely crooning.

"All of These" pays clever homage to the vocal jazz standard "All of Me," simultaneously borrowing and tweaking the tune's melody and feel. Here, Franco deploys a chorus of female backing singers who chirp dreamily like the modern-day answer to the Chordettes, of "Mr. Sandman" renown. (Ask your grandparents, kiddos.)

Though he's clearly a man out of time, Franco is not necessarily stuck in the past. To wit, "Lost and Alone." It's the album's best song and quite possibly one of the finest locally written ballads in years. Aesthetically, the cut is redolent with the kind of ghostly, AM-radio nostalgia that would make M. Ward and Zooey Deschanel weak in the knees. But it also bears hallmarks of more contemporary styles, especially lyrically, which give the sweetness some urgency.

And that, in a nutshell, is what makes the album such a remarkable recording — though venerable players such as Dono Schabner, Will Patton and Caleb Bronz certainly don't hurt. Franco manages to exist in two eras at once, channeling the halcyon glory days of American popular music while updating its sensibility.

Lewis Franco and the Missing Cats, All in Stride

Album Review – Seven Days

By Dan Bolles [05.25.11]

 (Self-released, CD)

When last we left central-Vermont-based hepcat Lewis Franco, the songwriter and bandleader was thrilling the Baby Bjorn set with a charming little children’s record, Swingin’ in Daddyland. Nearly four years later, he’s back with a new effort, All in Stride. The album is a breezy exposition of mellow acoustic swing and often-cheeky hothouse jazz. While aimed toward more mature ears, it should still appeal to fans of all ages — especially if they were lucky enough to be weaned on records such as Daddyland.

“Slapstick Comedy” opens the record and reintroduces Franco as both a gifted guitarist and delightfully likeable songwriter. His easy vocal delivery makes it seem as though he has an eternal Cheshire grin as he coos a playful melody around Dono Schabner’s slinky guitar line.

To repeat, this ain’t no children’s album. “Desperate Buyers” would be one song parents may wish to keep clear of impressionable ears. A clever, if somewhat depressing, allegory centered on the seedy allure of prostitutes — yes, really — it’s probably best saved for after you’ve had “the talk” with junior. Well after. Still, it’s a finely conceived and executed tune that scores major bonus points for degree of thematic difficulty.

Franco’s backing band, the Missing Cats, are as compelling as ever, which is to be expected given their collective pedigree. In addition to Schabner, Franco enlists the talents of gypsy-jazz guru Will Patton, who shines on mandolin and resonator tenor guitar throughout, in addition to adding pitch-perfect backing vocals. Justin Rose is typically solid holding down the low-end on upright bass. And “guest cat” Colin McCaffrey — who, not surprisingly, engineered the record — has some nice moments on backing vocals, as well as some superb string work on “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” and “Robinson Cemetery.”

The latter tune is one of several examples highlighting Franco’s subtle songwriting gifts. While Daddyland was notable for his ability to make children’s music palatable for adult ears — which is no mean feat — here he reveals previously unseen nuance. Franco wrote all but three of the album’s 13 tracks and displays impressive versatility throughout. From tender melancholy on “Robinson Cemetery” to playful teasing on “Nickel and Dimin‘ Me to Death” and heartfelt longing on album closer “Stay With Me,” Franco proves he has depth to match his significant chops.

Former Northern Power employee-turned-singer/songwriter Lewis Franco is one of Vermont’s best-kept musical secrets. An understated and good-natured family man residing in the greater Montpelier area, Franco is one of the Green Mountains’ most gifted musicians, a performer who is able to wrap well-crafted lyrics around catchy musical melodies, and possesses the guitar chops and musical sensibility to match.
Franco’s new project – performed with an ensemble cleverly called the “Missing Cats,” and tinged with a scat-meet-gypsy swing sound – may be his best yet. Franco is always good at pushing the envelope – lyrically, musically, instrumentally – and he really goes to town on this new project. “Swinging in Daddyland” is toe-tapping infectious acoustic music at its best – equal parts Django Reinhart on the gypsy end, and, on the other, a Dan Zanes-ian Americana sensibility with a big-hearted sense of humor that grins, winks and nudges without being trite, sentimental or cheesy.
Pulling off a “concept” album – “Swing” meets “Gypsy” meets “Americana” - can be real hard to do. But Franco courageously commits up front. And the best part of Franco’s songs, for me, is the fact that they always have a little musical and/or lyrical twist to them, including the use of odd instruments (a washing machine, for example, in his new project), or a zany concept he manages to pull off with a wink and a grin (Long-time Franco listeners know “Who Put the Hyper in Your Diaper?” from his first CD), as well as wonderful contributions from a whole community of friends and neighbors, from his multi-talented musical neighbor Colin McCaffrey to his daughter and son Louisa and Joseph.
The new CD comes out, well, swinging, with the title track, and then quickly jumps into a wonderful tune called “Homegrown” about the creature comforts of living in the “Householder” stage – a rhythmically wonderful ode to “place” and all that it entails, the homestead garden, the day-to-day rhythm of the seasons, the small pleasures of family. Imagine the lyrics below, performed against a groovy and rhythmic acoustic beat:
Good stuff growin' in the garden
Jumpin' up out of the dirt
Cook it up right for supper tonight
The neighbors will be bringin' desert
We don't need television
We don't need a video game
We have our fun together
It isn't too exciting but I love it just the same

Indeed.
And this song highlights another wonderful aspect to Franco’s tunes – I feel like he is singing about me and everyone I know who has ever been a parent with children and a family.
My two kids’ current favorite on the CD is a wonderful tune called “Have You Looked?” (track 3), a father/daughter duet about finding lost stuff – a necklace, Mommy (she’s in the garden), a pillow, and…well, I won’t spoil the ending for you, but let me just say that, as a father, I almost broke down the first time I heard the end of the song – laughing and crying all at once. Brilliantly orchestrated, and so simple.
Personally, I am drawn to track 7 – “Annabelle” – an acoustic rock and roll number about a father and daughter spending a day out, and their encounters with a band playing dance music. It is a spontaneous, fun, catchy and upbeat tune about seizing the moment, wrapped up (very subtly) with a reminder that kids do grow up (Never mind track 6, “Rude Awakening” – a bluesy number urging adults in love to think thrice before they plunge into the baby thing) and, Franco reminds us that we parents need to practice “carpe diem” behavior at every opportunity.
And I haven’t even begun to mention the other ten tunes (yes, there are an ambitious 15 songs on this project).
Suffice to say, Lewis Franco has set a very high bar for Green Mountain singer/songwriters with his new and wondrous CD. Don’t miss him, performing with “the Missing Cats,” at some of Vermont’s best venues this next month!
And keep it swinging.
I don’t like children’s music. It’s funny, because, for the most part, I like kids. And believe it or not, I like music. So what is it about the meeting of the two that rubs me the wrong way? Is it the inane lyrics? The obnoxiously catchy, singsong melodies? The idea that sleazy record execs are corrupting generations of youth by force-suckling them at the altar of consumerism, masquerading as giant, fuzzy purple dinosaurs? Yes. Yes. And abso-freakin’-lutely. It’s enough to make one to pray for sterility.

But don’t tie those tubes just yet; there’s hope on the horizon.
Central Vermont songwriter Lewis Franco is one hep daddy-o. With his latest offering, Swingin’ in Daddyland, the guitarist delivers a rock-solid swing record likely to enthrall the kiddies over and over again. But perhaps more importantly, it won’t drive their parents nuts upon repeat listens.
To call this album “children’s music” is perhaps not quite fair.

Family-oriented, the target audience is certainly kids. But unlike any number of kinder-music artists — Raffi being perhaps the worst culprit — Franco doesn’t assume your kids are dumb. He charmingly addresses myriad topics from the obvious (love, family, etc.) to less traditional themes such as the actual responsibility required to properly raise children, and the inevitable frustrations that arise in doing so.

Speaking to the latter issue, “Have You Looked” is likely the finest track here, and serves as an apt summation of the album’s overall feel and blue-eyed soul. A back-and-forth between Franco and his 10-year-old daughter Louisa — who displays remarkable tone and control for such a tender age — the song centers around children’s tendencies to “misplace” items that were never really lost at all. “Daddy, have you seen my necklace?” inquires Louisa, innocently. “Have you looked in the vicinity of your neck?” replies Daddy.

By the song’s finish, Daddy is clearly exasperated. Louisa’s solution to finding his “lost” patience? Looking in the vicinity of his heart.

Franco is a masterful songwriter and handles potentially cornball material with grace and affection. It doesn’t hurt that his band, The Missing Cats, serve up some seriously hot swing throughout, lending an innocently playful quality to the recording. Given the local all-star cast — Gabe Jarrett, Robinson Morse and Will Patton, to name but a few — that should surprise no one.
Swingin’ in Daddyland is a delightful alternative to the flood of intellectually and emotionally vacant releases vying for your kid’s entertainment dollar — and their parents’ sanity.
Dan Bolles - Seven Days (Nov 7, 2007)