Personnel: Ron Franklin (vocals, guitars, mandolin); John Whittemore (pedal steel guitar); Randal Morton (banjo); Adam "Bomb" Woodard (piano, organ, background vocals); Jim Dickinson (piano, background vocals); Jeremy Scott (bass guitar, background vocals); Greg Roberson, Ross Johnson (drums, maracas); Ashley Azlin, Boo Mitchell (background vocals).
At the dawn of the 21st century, Memphis, TN is still one of the last true homes of the blues, but there's an undeclared war taking place between younger musicians who take the structures and lyrical conceits of traditional blues and mess them up to create new sounds and traditionalists who respectfully follow the template set by their musical forbearers. Ron Franklin is a Memphis-based singer and songwriter who seems to have one foot in each camp; he's worked with Jack Yarber of the Oblivians and members of Tav Falco's Panther Burns, but he also has a clear appreciation of old-school country blues and its cultural roots. Franklin's album City Lights often sounds like an effort to bridge the gap between these two schools of thought, with limited success: his acoustic guitar and mandolin work are commendable throughout, his songs are well-crafted, and he's put together a great band for these sessions, anchored by legendary keyboard man Jim Dickinson. But Franklin's vocals are his downfall on City Lights: his frequently wobbly tenor sounds like the work of a guy who deliberately sings flat for effect (which becomes all the more obvious when he pulls out a number where he hits the notes just right), and there are more than a few moments on this album where it's hard to tell if Franklin is joking or playing it straight. Which is especially annoying since it's clear this guy has the talent to cut a solid modern-day blues album that avoids clich?s in favor of fresh songs and ideas, and hopefully he'll make that record one of these days. In the meantime, City Lights is an interesting but flawed introduction to an artist who seemingly is still hammering his musical vision into shape. ~ Mark Deming