Ryan Francesconi Ryan FrancesconiParables
Putting out instrumental albums armed only with an acoustic guitar seems like something from the past or from recordings in the purest Deutsche Grammophon style. And we will all agree that the record covers of non-commercial musical styles are also non-commercial (they seem to be made to order for the music that they contain). We have seen close-ups of old men with rolls of fat under their chins that are practically a crime, and scantily-clad female violin players with their instrument as an evident sign of sales strategy. We have seen artistic efforts that will only hold water with unconditional fans and knowledgeable people, and that a pop buyer would never swallow ( example: the cover of Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” on the organ, played by Simon Preston, a truly intense performance full of colour, which will never be a bestseller, not only because of the type of music it is, but because of its insipid album cover). We have also seen covers with shots of the orchestra in question from every possible angle, each one stranger and more unnatural than the next.
For all of these reasons, an “academic” instrumental album that breaks the rules deserves our respect. Whether it is from the new age side (read: anything produced by labels like Windham Hill or Dancing Cat) or the indie side, more specifically the music of those artists we cover in Playground. Ryan Francesconi has in his favour that he is an old hand with the crowds, thanks to his collaborations as a long-distance runner in the works of Joanna Newsom. And Joanna Newsom, continuing on with the Deutsche thing, is a good example of a classically-trained artist who has nevertheless drawn sighs from the throats of people who until then had never sung songs more complex than those of Radiohead. This has merit. And Francesconi, although he might be more unknown than others, is no more of a newcomer than they are in this respect. Be careful with his history, as he has already put together different types of bands, all of them risky. In RF & Lili De La Mora we heard him flirt with gentle electronic music, in The Toids , Ryan Francesconi & Kane Mathis and Trio Mopmu , with traditional Bulgarian, South-eastern European, and Balkan music, in Sleeping At Last with dream pop, and in Dosh, with electronic music suitable for lounges and other small spaces to relax in, with albums released on Ninja Tune and Anticon. We needn’t mention that he has come through all of his adventures unscathed, and seeing him now with “Parables”, it’s clear that his more academic side needs to get out and about a little bit. Because what he offers us here is a master class of guitar picking, as well as an unheard-of daring in terms of compositional development, in eight songs that are eight poems with music and without lyrics.
The chromatic variety is such that the first thing that shocks us is that we are so moved and experience so many things listening only to an acoustic guitar. Let me make it clear right now: the most evidently similar, closest performer in time, James Blackshaw, whose “All Is Falling” submerged us in a chamber symphony, is the only guitar player in the indie world who offers us fingers as fast as those of Lucky Luke. And James Blackshaw, whose work is highly respectable and will thrill those who love the genre, shielded himself behind arrangements and production in that work. Francesconi’s daring in holding a jam session (the jazz influence is evident, as well as Balkan, African, or classical baroque music), and which is also such high quality, catapults “Parables” into the category of one of the great instrumental music releases of 2010. And if you know how to add, add the number of mentionable works released in 2010, and you’ll have a clear candidate for the album of the year in this genre.
It is also indubitable that if Francesconi starts his work with songs of the calibre of the song “ Parables” and “ Parallel Lights”, two clear references to the virtuoso Michael Hedges (the second song is an obvious technical plagiarism of “Aerial Boundaries” by Hedges, which is so extreme that it almost seems like a cover), he has already won over three-quarters of the audience. In fact, it even seems like it’s Francesconi, and not Joanna Newsom, who is the seminal creator of the warm academicism and melodic mutation in a narrative thread that we saw in albums like “Have One On Me” (the same year and the same record company as “Parables”). We also have clear demonstrations of mastering technique (“ With Hands”, with its playing with harmonics and its simply fucking incredible picking technique), and highly visual works (“ Deep Rivers Run Quiet” is practically a rustling of leaves in the middle of a forest, a contained composition that seeks iconographic parallels with reality. If you want an example of graphic sound, you can also listen to pianist George Winston’s “ Snow”, where he emulated snow falling, on the piano). Of course, we’ll also find traditional references to his land (“ Palios Karsilamas” is inspired in a Turkish dance, the Karsilama, which is obviously played here at a drowsy pace, almost unrecognisable on the acoustic guitar), giving a chromatic scale to the album that is as frightening as it is sleep-inducing at the table, from pure auditory pleasure. In its style, then, this is a candidate with a fighting chance to win the title of best album of the year in its category, which some people would call “featherweight” because it’s non-commercial and experimental, products we will never see raised up onto the annual lists podium, but which deserve a title like “heavyweight”, and with honours. Besides, it has a very pretty album cover.