#2 Jackson C. Frank — Jackson C. Frank
So good he named it twice.
I can’t remember how this album fell in my lap exactly. There was a name that cropped up on both Laura Marling & Bill Calahan’s influences playlists and I thought I’d dig a little deeper – if those two point towards a similar direction, you follow. It was an artist called Jackson C. Frank.
A bit of background reading and I learned the American folk musician released a self-titled album in 1965, on Columbia (EMI), produced by none other than a 24-year old Paul Simon. It turned out to be the first and only studio release Frank would put out.
If you ever feel like life has dealt you a bad hand, you’ll find solace in his story. In a nut-shell – a school fire, the death of his infant-son, schizophrenia, homelessness, depression, blindness, and dying from pneumonia – to name just some of the highlights. Without sensationalising the album prematurely, after a full-listen it’s difficult not to draw parallels between his music and misfortune.
On the surface, the album’s pretty straightforward to explain. Fifteen tracks, just shy under an hour, with one man and his guitar. There’s nowhere to hide when the elements are stripped back to their barebones.
The record starts with “Blues Run the Game”, which would become his most-covered track and for good reason. Gentle guitar picking softly carries the song, on top of a voice which holds both grace and pain in equal measure. It’s intimate. The vocals sit front and centre, and command your attention with every line. I love the fact it doesn’t have a chorus. No hook, other than a repeated verse to close. It’s storytelling that keeps the listener invested.
To contrast, “Don’t Look Back” feels like a rallying-cry. Chords strummed with conviction and sung from the gut. “Kimbie”, a riff-off a traditional-folk banjo song, could easily stand on its own as acappella with the way it’s delivered. And “Here Comes the Blues” does it exactly what it says, with an effortless swagger.
“Milk and Honey” opens with a tone not dissimilar to “The Sound of Silence” and a quivering-vocal delivery that reminded me of Roy Orbison. It’s haunting in many ways. I think the intrinsic appeal of this record is they’re (nearly) all sad songs dressed up as happier ones; gorgeous melodies wrapped around lines of love, loss, and pain. For me this is probably the most devastating and beautiful on the album. The subsequent two songs signal a melancholic hat-trick.
After a couple of listens to the record all the way through, my only comment was that I was invested much more in the first two-thirds of the album. There’s not a bad song on here, but I found my attention wavering on tracks like “Marcy’s Song” and “The Visit”. When I sat down to write this, I discovered the original release only featured the first ten tracks, with “You Never Wanted Me” closing Side-B.
The additional five songs gradually made their way into existence through numerous rereleases over the years. Considering it would be his first and only studio work, I imagine these bonus tracks are cherished by many, knowing they would’ve otherwise seemingly been lost.
The fact I’m picking up this album over 50 years later exemplifies its timelessness. Doing the math, Frank was around 22 when his album was released. Twenty. Two. I’m three years older and can barely string this together…
The level of songwriting and musicianship goes well beyond his years; you could easily mistake his words and voice belonging to a man far older, weathered and troubled. For me the album is a collection of heavy-weight songs, each standing on their own and delivering in their own right. Collectively, they’re a delight to listen to.
It’s a criminally underrated album, one I’m grateful to have finally found but embarrassed it took this long. All that’s left to do is push this in front of as many people as I can, in the hope this forgotten record receives the acclaim it deserves.
Noteworthy Tracks: “Blues Run the Game”, “Don’t Look Back”, “Kimbie”, “Yellow Walls”, “Here Come the Blues”, “Milk and Honey”, “My Name is Carnival”, “I Want to Be Alone”, “Just Like Anything, “You Never Wanted Me”