Songs For Hard Times

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When the opening song on a disc is titled "The Way the Empire Fell," it's a good bet you're listening to a singer-songwriter unafraid to show that he's steeped in the history of American protest music. On The Better Angels, John Francis has no qualms about announcing his intentions.

The anthemic sound of "Empire" recalls some 1980s big-hair bands. The lyrics, though, are firmly rooted in the first decade of the 21st century. Shifting between Tommy, a migrant worker, and Wall Street Joey, each watches the fall from a very different perspective. After an INS raid, Tommy is shackled at the ankles "in the land of the free." Opportunities run dry. Joey’s banker calls to repossess his car and summer home. "It was all too late; he'd gone too far / He slit his wrists with his credit card."

It’s a heavy start to an album. And a lingering electric guitar riff hints at a repeat of the heaviness on the very next song. Instead, praise the boom-chicka-boom that breaks out then, as Francis lightens the mood with "Johnny Cash on the Radio" -- the tune's opening is a homage to Cash's backing band, the Tennessee Three, and its famous sound. With a jaunty feel and lighter lyrics ("I got a prayin' Momma, I'm her only son / Broke her heart every time my Bible Belt come undone"), it offers levity and a lovely, and wholly appropriate, tribute. The Better Angels was produced by John Carter Cash and recorded at the Cash Cabin Studio in Hendersonville, Tennessee, where Johnny Cash laid down most of his late-in-life and brilliant American Recordings.

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