Epitaph introduced me to Sage Francis on a sampler disc back in 2006, via a track titled “The Buzz Kill”, and it was by far one of the best vitriol-infused lyrical-rap pieces, one well-suited to an Epitaph punk roster. Laced with observations on everything from suicide to music-industry standards and Clear Channel to international affairs, it was rap from a Rhode Island slam poet with certified shit to say.
During a 2008 interview, we were able to glean where Francis stands both politically and socially as someone who genuinely gives a damn about the state of current affairs in our United States; he swears up and down that his songs are not meant as strictly a pedestal, and aside from some obvious jabs at the status quo, Francis’ music is first and foremost intellectually clever poetry with a sense of humor (see “Got Up This Morning”, “Strange Fame”) and a message.
This year, Sage Francis presents us with Li(f)e — a little-explored tangent where Francis trades beats and original soundscapes for indie rock. Sage Francis is trying to out-Roots The Roots with a dash of Mars Volta, and it feels more like rap/rock for hipsters. As a wise old movie patsy once philosophized, rap/rock in a hipster community “is like an elevator in an outhouse … don’t belong.” Lyrically, Li(f)e explores some diverse terrain in terms of sociology and ethics, such as abortion and single parenthood (“The Baby Stays”), the prison system (“Little Houdini”), relationships with other countries (“London Bridge” … yes, another “London Bridge”, only … you know, good), his own time growing up (“I Was Zero”, “The Best of Times”), and so on.
The expected quality of penmanship is definitely present as Francis never really holds back on the subject matter, but the delivery is so weak, and at times so nonchalant on even the more pressing issues, it takes away the sincerity of the record — a sincerity that appears to have been released in favor of its tofu counterpart, indie rock. Indie rock is a funny little bastard in the stereotypical sense, as some people try to substitute substance for “so artsy it’s clever.” The reason some indie rock works is that all of the components for it are present, but when certain portions are either overdone or left out entirely, things get tacky; Sage Francis here is less a slam poet and more a mock Masterpiece Theater orator with a gruffer voice and a rapper’s pacing, overlapped by rock and jam-band elements that would feel perfectly at home if this were a more straightforward effort vocally.
There was a lot of talk recently about the popularity of Li(f)e‘s single “The Best of Times”, a song that strolls down Francis’ own memory lane about relationships and life in general. It is impressive that, given its storytelling format, the song picked up so well in this market, but even the fan loyalty cannot account for the sheer boredom this track precipitates. I admire an artist who tries to take a new approach to his old game, but there is no feeling behind this track — as if he expects everyone to drop what they are doing and literally tunnel in on this witty recitation about unrequited love in high school. There is a word for plot lines like that in TV Land: cliche (assuming it is not Sweeps Week and due for a cliffhanger, in which case the word is “cash”).
“Three Sheets to the Wind” is Hot Hot Heat turned Sterno in a can with a rapping front man who can barely be heard; “Slow Man” is a groovy song, but the meaning is lost on me. Truth be told, the handful of hearty tracks like “Polterzeitgeist” and “Worry Not” seem to fit Francis’ vibe on Li(f)e really well musically, while the more socially charged songs come off limp and narcissistic in the non-braggadocio, “hear what I’m saying, dude” stoner-revelation way. The lyrics, the skill, the music are all here; however, the reason bands like The Roots and Flobots and Atmosphere did so well with the more coffee shop-oriented fare was delivery. Francis experimented and fell short, no big thing. If he didn’t come across so lazy here, I would buy it.
On the upside … I imagine this material will sound a damn sight better live.