Way back in January 2016 RockShot Magazine interviewed Frankie Lee and discussed critically acclaimed debut, American Dreamer, which Rolling Stone called the debut album of the year. Off the back of a recent tour, where he appeared in the UK and Ireland at London, Leeds, Manchester and Dublin he has now released his follow up album, Stillwater.
Frankie has now shared Downtown Lights, the first single from his new album. Lee continues to hold a mirror up to the idea of the American Dream and laments the decimation of the working class and the effects of unfettered capitalism on communities across the country. Regarding the genesis of Downtown Lights Lee says “it’s an ode to Jessica Lange, who lived in Stillwater when I was growing up.
When she moved away she said it was because they killed the town with condos and tourist shops. Which I agree with. This song is about a dream I had walking down Main Street with her.”
The video features vintage footage taken in Stillwater. Musically it is a lush soundscape with strong twang guitar, languid harmonica and slow strummed acoustic guitar. The musicality and Frankie’s slow simple vocal delivery really do convey a dreamlike quality. This is a strong first single from a very strong album.
Stillwater itself is a small town between two hills in the middle of America. Frankie Lee was born there and has been running from it and to it ever since. Stillwater is also a record about life in middle America. A “record” meaning simply that, converting sound into permanent form.
For the recording of the follow up to American Dreamer, Frankie Lee had visited a few studios and they all felt like the same big production factories. He had spent the best part of a year wrangling livestock and had a pile of cash on the table to pay for the biggest and best gadgets which he then found he ultimately had absolutely no interest in. Lee wanted to get away from people who thought music should be made in isolation booths or that bigger was better. All the people who wanted the next big thing. Lee wanted to be the last little thing, he just had to find the right space to do it in.
One day Frankie Lee was walking down main street in his hometown and it hit him that he could bring the studio to them. Luckily, the house he grew up in was available. His mother had lived in the same house in Stillwater for most of Lee’s life. It’s a small cedar-sided house on an acre lot on the northern end of town, tucked back in the woods on a small hill, it looks like a log cabin.
So they packed their instruments, tuned the old upright piano and rolled out a tape machine next to the wood-burning stove. Music was made from morning ‘til night. For three days straight, they ate together, stayed together and played together. Cutting six songs the first day and five the next, most of what they captured was first or second take.
The music is minimal and warm. Lee describes his sound as Western Music, steel guitars and synths blend with acoustic guitars and omni chords. The musical brush is gold and green, dipped in deep blue. He slips in and out of time throughout the record. One line in a song could be its first or last. The song-stories are a blend of his own romantic grit. Ex-lovers, lost land and hope flung out of a car window, fraying in the wind.
On American Dreamer, Lee’s characters were set loose in a seemingly inescapable inheritance of self-destruction. On Stillwater, they seek a path towards redemption by returning home and confronting the past. Based on the loss of youth, with a focus on the dissolution of love, as well as the real life of the working class, Stillwater is a scrapbook of short stories, reveries and musical growth by one of America’s greatest unknown songwriters.
The opening track of the album, Speakeasy, is a tale of the trouble gossip brings. Too much talk and confusion can tear people apart. It’s a song for the morning of the mind. Waking up in the pale blue first few hours of the day when things are a bit more quiet and still. It is typical of the rest of the album with an exquisite acoustic and steel guitar intro and later on some beautiful flute. The album seems effortless, whilst being lush and layered. If you are a fan of the likes of Bob Dylan, The Eagles, Neil Young or Tom Petty, then this should be right up your sidewalk. Even if you are not, it is well worth checking out as underneath the warm Americana lurks something dark.
Stillwater is available now via the London-based record label Loose, which has grown to become Europe’s premier Americana label. Order Stillwater HERE
Words by Tony Creek, Portraits by Rachel Lipsitz