Frank Turner & The Sleeping Souls – The Tuning Fork

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One of my great  joys of reviewing for 13th Floor has been the discoveries of styles and singers and songwriting in the passing parade of memorable musical talent that shows up when I walk through the doors of Auckland’s “Tuning Fork .” I had possibly one of the best of the year with Tami Neilson, backed by  Skyscraper Stan,  a week or so back. Such a magical show, and Tami’s voice is inexplicably under- recognized in this country – her vocals rival those of Amy Winehouse. Tami epitomises how a stunning voice just makes a gig.

So it was with that same frisson of anticipation last night, that I went back to this favourite venue to listen to Frank Turner with his backing band, The Sleeping Souls. Any people less ‘sleepy’ I have not seen: Ben Lloyd on guitar, Tarrant Anderson on bass (wonderful to watch with his testosterone-loaded strumming high above his shoulders, his head jerks, and his sheer exuberance in attacking the bass notes) , Matt Nasir on keyboard, and Nigel Powell on drums.

I was not a part of the coterie of Frank Fans who thronged the stage and packed the front three-quarters of the venue. I came to him fresh, having never encountered his music, and for the first two songs, Recovery and The Road (great lyrics in this one), I was entranced by the commitment and energy spilling off the stage and soaking in to his diehard fans who, as they sang the songs and cheered him on, visibly became putty in the hands of the irrepressible Frank.

Let’s get some bouquets out there: Frank is a frontperson and showman. He knows how to work a crowd  with an edgy mixture of aggression and charm” This is a new song from our upcoming album. And I KNOW when we play a new song, everyone goes to the bar or checks their Facebook” he intones soothingly, before slugging us all with “THAT’S BULLSHIT”  (I froze in my moves towards the glass of pinot) .

My concert notes by this stage, had two entries: “High energy! Strong voice!”  Those normally overdone exclamation marks are warranted here. In fact I started to feel that with Frank, I was watching one large emphatic energy system-  certainly his delivery of his sung and spoken words had that sense of an extended and loud exclamation mark. But just as in writing, if you overdo the emphasis, it all starts to seem like the musical version of an overcooked chicken. And that is my beef (to mix animal metaphors ) with Frank. By the third or fourth track, he had lost me in the roar and scream. And worse still , he lost his own lyrics with his overblown attempts to put what he must see as passion in to his songs.

It takes great dexterity to be able to scream your way through a song and not sound clunky and as if you are frying your vocal chords. I heard an old Joe Cocker song the other day and admired how well he pumped feeling in to his beautifully-rasped lyrics, so that it touched the heart instead of shredding the ears. Jimmy Barnes was also a master of the rasp back in the day… it beguiled and drew in the listener. Frank is like Jimmy without the delicious musical gravel in his voice. Instead of a beguiling voice, Frank just sounds like he’s yelling at us all. And that sense is underpinned by his loud and worrying gasps for air between phrases. There were moments I wanted to rush on stage and resuscitate him , so desperate was the intake of air he needed in order to pump out his tuneless vocals at his highest volume.

Frank Turner is in his early 30’s and maybe it’s time to leave the years of pub-band sound behind him and use what has not been damaged of his vocal chords to find his way back to the musical heart with which he clearly set out. The irony of this brickbat I’m serving up here is that he deserves a equally sizeable bouquet for his quiet tuneful singing , of which we glimpsed rare and precious moments in songs like Wessex Boy where he begins with musical delivery but soon lapses in to the derivative yell. The same effect in One Fine Day… beautiful gut-wrenching song which again captures those moments to which we can all relate: ” now I’ve fucked up everything… every little goddamn thing.” The opening was quiet, and as moving as the words, but by the end, the yelled voice drowned the message. When he lets go of the pub style, he has a voice that is touching and sensitive, and as you can read, the  paradox of the whole Frank package is that his lyrics are exquisite if you get past the f-ing and blinding he loves to do both in his writing and in  his stage intros. It’s just a bit unoriginal in the audience chat… Fuck must have become the world’s most over-used and un-edgy word.. but somehow in a song like Good And Gone, it works a certain magic. That magic lies in the heart-sore writing, that has a poignancy that made me want to cry when I read the words after the show. Yet it lacked even one ounce of the same moving effect when I heard the actual Frank rendition last night. To give credit though, just try reading the poetry and agony of his words and see if you can remain unmoved by them…

I have searched for you
In the darkness of a dozen dingy dance halls
In countless queues in cafes in the suburbs
In the bed clothes of a thousand stranger’s bedrooms

And I have yearned for you
In the airless hubs of international airports
In the hollow hell of many hundred hotels
In the solitary stillness of the early hours
I still do
Sometimes the things you need
Are right back where you started from

So fuck you Hollywood
For raising us on dreams of happy endings
In postcards of the prom kings and the prom queens
For teaching us that love was free and easy

Fuck you Mötley Crüe
For telling tales that skimp on all the dark sides
For teasing us with access and with excess
For bringing out the lowest drive in everyone
Oh fuck you

Sometimes the things you need
Are right back where you started from
Sometimes the things you need
They hang around a little while
Good and gone

If I could just have a second try
To take the second call you made that night
To find myself an airport and a credit card
Find a flight or something
To head back to the start

Sometimes the things I need
Are right back where I started from
Sometimes the things I need
They hang around a little while
Good and gone

They’re good and gone

Who of us can’t relate to those sublimely penned lyrics? Who of us has not had that sense of a lost great love? and Frank has many songs that fall in to this category of skilled writing. But his delivery diminishes his powerful writing talent.

His songwriting has a universal beauty, often dealing with the big unanswerable questions of Life. A friend told me of a funeral he went to that used a version of  Long Live The Queen, and he said the lyrics of that Frank song brought most of the guests to tears. So there is a tremendous talent there but it’s being drowned, live, in a flood of screeched and tuneless delivery. I also worry that it overcooks the singer’s real vocal ability  I hope he can preserve his voice and then grow a new depth of singing style that lets his effortless vocals flow, and the poignancy of his crafted words shine.

Otherwise the whole simply sounds like the sum of its parts… many loud pub songs that give us a chance to throw back our heads and yell to the ceiling, to jump and fist punch and slap and talk and drink. For most of his fans last night, that seemed to be enough. But Frank’s  lyrics deserve better than that. And my ears want more from a gig than the sense someone is taking to them with rough vocal sandpaper. For that I can get down to any local pub.

I left a few songs before the end which I never normally do. My ears needed a rest and I found the belching ,grinding ,wheezing buses trundling along Customs Street were a relief after the aural assault. Yet when I came home and read the Frank Turner lyrics, I suddenly understood the loyalty of the fans and their respect for a man who, as he evolves his musical style, may yet live up to the poetry and soulful beauty of the words he pens.
– Liz Gunn

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Veronica McLaughlin is a free-lance photographer and writer, as well as web-Master for The 13th Floor.