Circles And Squares, Francis Rodino's Sellaband Debut
Francis Rodino’s album, Circles And Squares has been a long time coming but early fan reactions indicate that the native New Yorker’s London production was well worth the wait. Having written a few reviews of some notable Sellaband artists during their larval stages I am now saddling up to review a finished product which will be judged by the public in comparison to and in competition with the albums made by major recording artists.
Rodino scored a coup in enlisting producer Steve Bush (Corrine Bailey Rae, Stereophonics) for this recording which features Rodino’s excellent band in a program of well written, artistically arranged and emotionally charged songs. I wrote about the massive potential of the demo tracks Francis had posted on his Sellaband profile and must say that Circles And Squares lives up to the challenge put to Rodino by the 656 fans who invested in the album’s production through Sellaband.
The album pays due respect to traditional aspects of record making sometimes overlooked by new artists attempting to be completely original. Circles And Squares features meaningful song introductions, logical construction and endings that, for want of a better term, bring the stories full circle. From Rodino’s acoustic guitar to Matt George’s work on drums and everything in between, the impression is that this is a serious effort from musicians who play like men. Confidence and testosterone rule the day and there is no question that these are the sounds that this band intended to make. Nick Hollis is cast as Rodino’s Waddy Wachtel and plays solid rock guitar throughout. His parts, his tones and his solos are the work of a mature musician who understands exactly what a song requires. Bassist Allan Burls and Luke Juby round out a rhythm section that obviously has the ability to come up with faster, more difficult parts but has the taste and respect for Rodino’s songs not to.
There is little innovative or groundbreaking here but that is meant as a compliment. Circles and Squares succeeds in framing Rodino’s stories and images in a soundscape that rarely takes the listeners attention away from the plot. Francis’ dynamic voice, smoky, sensitive or stentorian when required is always at center stage. The only exceptions of note being the spinning synths and programmed percussion of Wonderful From Here. A more ethereal, ambient approach would have been more in character with the instrumental palette pervading the rest of the album.
Any Day Now is an aggressive take on the rhythmic theme of Al Jarreau’s 1981 hit We’re In This Love Together. But while the Jarreau hit was super pop slick, Rodino’s song has grown a set of nards and demands to know “Well, Are we or Aren’t we? (in this love together)” Allan Burls shines on this track as does Nick Hollis with his guitar lines on the out chorus. I wish both were more prominent in the mix but more on that later.
Francis has the ability to use words in a way that causes one to say “Man, that’s so simple. I wish I would have said that.” In the song Blood, Francis claims emphatically that “It doesn’t hurt at all.” But anyone who has happened upon a photo of a lost love while cleaning out a desk drawer will recognize the eloquent lie we tell ourselves when we look for clarity in the face of nostalgic pain. This is Rodino’s artistic talent at work. He tells us what we already know, but in a context we couldn’t provide for ourselves…and that is why we buy albums like this.
Drink is the quintessential rocking pub song. This classic 2-beat rocker could have been sung by Robin Hood’s merry men under the canopy of the Sherwood Forest as they cracked open another keg of ale. The band puts it’s collective foot to the floor on this one. Drink might have come off trite or corny but there is no self-consciousness apparent in Rodino’s band and sheer confidence of delivery drives it home convincingly.
There is very little not to like about Circles And Squares and my main issue can probably be called more a symptom of the way things are done nowadays than a criticism of choices. We are past the transitory stages between analogue and digital recording and comparing one to the other is no longer relevant. There is no question that the technology allows us to record things that would have been impossible to cram into the grooves of a vinyl record. The huge bottom end hits in Science would likely have caused a mastering engineer to compensate heavily as he attempted to carve a disc master. Now that audio is just a pile of 1s and 0s mastering standards have become less of a concern when considering manufacturing and duplication. But as it is with taxes, once something goes up it rarely goes back down and overall audio level is no exception. When albums are tossed in a pile every disc fights for attention and sadly that attention can come down to which one shakes the cones out of the speakers first.
I would compare musical impact to standing in a crosswalk and being hit by a bus. It’s a momentary event that leaves an indelible impression. You’ll feel the results of the impact and will look out for the next one, but there is a time of healing in between, and that’s how peaks and valleys work. The track grooves along and BAM! a drum fill runs you over in the middle of the street, you get up, dust yourself off and strut along to the chorus section. Because of the competition for “World’s Hottest Audio Level” many recordings cheat themselves out of having meaningful peaks and valleys. Record companies perceive the average listener’s attention span to be measurable in nano-seconds so information is delivered like baby formula through a high-pressure fire hose. Consequently, instead being whacked by a bus now and then, we find ourselves strapped to the grill of that same bus with information pushed into our faces at 80 miles per hour for three minutes at a time. Instead of audio ebb and flow we have compressed air blowing our eyelids off and many beautiful musical details aren’t as apparent as they deserve to be.
I mentioned that I wanted to hear more of Burl’s bass and Hollis’ guitar in Any Day Now but it would be more accurate to say that I wanted to hear less of the audio information that masks the detail in those parts. The same can be said for all the instrumental tracks. The entire album is played, sung and recorded wonderfully but as with many modern recordings, there is little tease factor. You get all the information straight to your face immediately. This is not a criticism of Circle And Squares but a comment about the way things are done in order to compete with what have become accepted audio levels. Commercial recordings no longer let you catch your breath or give you a chance to look out and enjoy the scenery. It is as if the record company is sitting on your shoulder screaming “BUY ME NOW” into your ear. When audio information comes at you with that sort of velocity it can lose depth and become two dimensional.
Rodino’s album must compete with that mindset so whatever criticism I have concerning the album has to do with the zeitgeist of the industry, not the choices made in this production. Many of today’s hit records rely on production more than musical integrity and might not have held up to the way recordings were made thirty years ago. Circles And Squares is a well-crafted work created by people who knew what they were doing every step of the way. Thirty years ago, with the limitations and standards of that time, it might have had more air, more ebb and flow and perhaps more subtlety of detail. I’m confident it would have survived the test of time where many modern recordings of lesser musical merit would have fallen flat. As it stands, it is a hell of a debut album. Circles And Squares has hair, stands up on its hind legs and lets you know it’s here and to be dealt with. One would hope to hear it now and again thirty years from now.