The Upshot: Strummy melodies, innocent lyrics, and a generally optimistic attitude for those days when you need it the most.
BY FRED MILLS
San Fran’s Frances England is a, quote/unquote, “kids’ music artist,” an area with which I am relatively familiar, having been the parent of a kid for a reasonable amount of time. Said kid is now a teenager, but I still remember fondly our early listening sessions with—and eventual concert forays to—the likes of Farmer Jason, Dan Zanes, Billy Jonas, and of course my friend Uncle Rock. And I also recall that one common thread among all those performers was how they never talked down to their audience, eschewing “Itsy Bitsy Spider” fluff for material that respected these budding young citizens’ minds and sensibilities.
Which partially explains why England’s fifth album is a success on a far deeper level than “just another collection of cute kids’ songs” from a kids’ performer. While she has actually released a record targeted at adults (Paths We Have Worn), I would propose that for the uninitiated, there’s nothing remotely juvenile going on here, nothing that, unless you examine the lyrics within the context of them being written in order to appeal to both young and old, would tip you off. The title track, for example, with its sing-songy vocal and minimalist piano-based arrangement, could be a Feist tune (England’s voice recalls Feist, with maybe a hint of Neko Case), while the jocular “See What We Can See” has a gentle Elephant 6 collective vibe (love that trumpet). Even a track like “Closer to You,” a strummy ditty that features England and her friend Stew Peck swapping hopeful lines “I’ll take a freight train/ I’ll take a scooter/ We’ll get together somehow” that might suggest to a child how important interpersonal bonds are, works—for lack of a better term here—in a vacuum.
My suggestion: check preconceptions at the door and listen with the same open minds we ascribe to our children. After all, music can and should foster freshly-tilled innocence, not cynicism. There’s plenty of the latter in the world already.
“Hi Fred,” began the handwritten note that accompanied Explorer of the World, in lieu of a bio or one-sheet. “I know there’s a slim chance of you listening to this given how much music you must receive. This is a little different… Fingers crossed you’ll give it a listen, Frances.”
Correct on two of the points, Ms. England, but not the one about a “slim chance” because honesty counts for a lot in my book. And lord knows I read enough hype-filled hoo-haa in my line of work. All the best, Fred.
DOWLOAD: “Explorer of the World,” “See What We Can See”