Album Review | Neal Francis' Changes
Words by Brad Yeakel (Opti Mystic Outlooks)
The future imagined in Back to the Future II has been eclipsed by reality’s calendar, and now Neal Francis is contributing to my case of time dysmorphia. Francis’ debut album, Changes, has slipped through a wormhole to capture the essence of the sunny 70’s. The songwriting, instrumentation, tone, vibe, and style are as vintage as vintage gets. This album is shag carpet, lava lamps, vinyl, and Saturday afternoons.
“This Time” welcomes you like sunshine. I immediately felt the desire to bask in the warm glow of retro organ. The band swells as they introduce horns, a piano counterpart, tight drums, a round bass, and Neal’s vocal charm. His voice is pleasant, neighborly, and real as he delivers a promise to be a good man. He tops off the promise with a touch of doubt, “can you picture that?” The tune struts it’s groove for an extended outro, stretching a lead off single into a double.
“She’s a Winner” steps to the plate with a casual confidence and gets the party really rolling. With a driving key part reminiscent of Stevie Wonder’s funkiest work, the arrangement has an intricate balance of instrumental ornamentation. There’s a lot going on, but nothing out of place. The comparisons to notable iconic artists such as Little Feat, Alan Touissant, The Funky Meters, and more emerge and the nostalgia is so intoxicating you start to wonder if you’ve been listening to this album your whole life.
“How Have I Lived,” is the first track to lead with a guitar riff. While the riff toys with elements of southern rock, the vocals pull in a direction that reminded me of The Black Keys. The horns add in a New Orleans flavor that waxes and wanes throughout the album.
“These Are the Days,” could be considered a thematic anchor for the album. Francis laments his past decisions and is hopeful to do better moving forward. The track pinpoints the act of making amends, apologies, and promising to be a better person. The material is relatable in so many ways.
The title track(s), “Changes Part 1&2” breathes life into disco, sparing the falsetto and heaping on the funk. Ethereal guitar tone, ballpark organ, and spacious sound beds decorate the song with retro-delic detail.
“Lauren” is the object of Francis’ desire. The tune leans hard on a sound most people directly attribute to Big Easy legend, Dr. John. It legitimately sounds like it may have even been a collaboration between the two, but it’s all Neal. His pining sure is groovy.
“Can’t Live Without Your Love” brings things down to this mellow “Levon Helm” vibe that has an introspective, confessional aspect. It is vulnerable and raw.
“Put it in His Hands” struts confidently back into the riff driven world and ends the album with a new attitude. The concept the album hangs on is personal transformation, and it manages to do it with such authentic humility and hope, that you can’t help but hope with him.
In the end, it is Francis’s humanity which connects. And his authenticity sounds like gold records and classic style on, “Changes.”