Sound — 9
"One by One" is Robert Francis' first album, and in 2007 it seemed to come out of nowhere. It was met with some commercial success, with songs such as "Little Girl" and "All of My Trains." However, due to the fact that the album was signed to the indie label, Aeronaut Records, it has not met its full potential with regards to popularity.
From the album's inception, with the piano introduction to the track "Mama Don't Come," the listener begins to have a feel for the entire mood of this album. Each song demonstrates Francis' "Old Soul" musical and lyrical personality. After "Mama Don't Come" is my least favorite track on this album, "Good Hearted Man." Though this track does have the ability to grow on you, quite frankly, it seems a bit lazy and repetitive compared to the others on "One by One"... But I digress. "Good Hearted Man" leads into the drunken and simple, but beautifully depressing first person ballad, "Little Girl." This track has a four-chord drop (F, C, G, Am) on every line, including those of the chorus, leading to an overall feeling of depressive apathy, kind of an "I don't like it but I guess things happen that way" feel. The next track, probably the catchiest and most "radio-sounding" on this album, is "Love for Me." This song contains a very systematic instrumental make-up of what I find to be Francis' best vocal work on this album, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, bass, drums, and piano. It is probably the happiest sounding song on this album. Following this track is "Dakota," probably my favorite song on this record. It is one of those songs that really makes you want to see the artist live. This song, along with the final track "All of My Trains" was used in the movie "Deadfall," which, appropriately, I watched slightly drunk. The title song "One by One" comes after "Dakota," surprising the listener with an old country sounding fiddle introduction and refrain. This is the first of two 7-minute tracks on the album and I find to be the one of the most unique songs in existence. It, like some others of Francis' songs, utilizes excellent placement of female harmony and melody, combined with a surreal yet somehow down-to-earth instrumentation. Though he re-recorded what some feel is a better version of "One by One" on his second album, "Before Nightfall," I see this song as a really great addition to music in general. Ah, yes, next comes the manifesto of regret, "Alice." This tune mixes blues and country styles to provide a sort of lonelier, more sobering (but far from sober) style. This song impressed me from the moment I first heard it; a musical sample of the emotional distress of a man who knows that his problems were all his fault: something that many people can relate to. "Alice" leads us to "Pilgrims," a surreal experience of imagery, probably the most experimental of Robert Francis songs. "Pilgrims" took a while to grow on me, mainly due to the fact that the distorted vocals on the chorus are so unexpected, but soon, I began to enjoy this particular dynamic of this album. While "Pilgrims" leaves the listener in a dissociated state of mind, trying to figure out what it was he or she just listened to, the song is complemented by a supercool acoustic guitar chord at the start of "The Devil's Mountains." In this song, the acoustic guitar, somewhat distorted, is surprisingly enjoyable, despite my waryness of single chord intros. But the chords are just so damn cool. Anyways, Francis begins to drone, in an articulation that far surpasses any of his other songs as far as word slurring goes. Again, another great song to go with a bottle of cheap bourbon and a sink full of vomit. The only thing that really makes me want to return to this song time and time again, is the mariachi instrumental bridge, reminiscent of the instrumentals in Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire." It's like Robert took the some of the most despondent moments in all his music (on the first half of this song) and instantly depolarized them into one of the most revelrous and joyous. And finally we come to what is probably Francis' best work musically on this album, another 7-minute track, "All of My Trains." This, for a while, was the song that defined my life, watching all the trains, all the opportunities that could have taken me somewhere, pass me by, while I was too stupid and afraid to just jump onto one of them. When I listen to Robert Francis sing this song, I imagine that it is one of the few songs in the first person that he has written for this album, that have actually been based on personal experience. Francis' voice, however is so believable, that the then 19 year-old might as well have been the old man, weeping upon his past mistakes.
Lyrics — 9
Few people can say, "Pistol visions in my hands / I want to see my blood across the sand," without getting somebody's attention. Robert Francis uses some of the most striking realistic imagery. Using very little metaphor, he is one of those few artists who seems to tell it like it is. All I ever had to hear him say was his simple chorus "Rock and roll / My little girl" and I was hooked. I've found Robert Francis to be one of those musicians that you can listen to just for the lyrics; however, his music matches his lyrics expertly. My favorite example of Francis' poetic ability is the chorus for "One by One": "The mountains stare at the face of the sun / The sky smiles down on everyone / We all wonder what we could have done / We end up passing, one by one." This is his way of pointing fingers at the self-absorbed mass that is the idealist culture of modern society: claiming that things should be better or that we should have taken more initiative in a situation, while we continue to pass these situations up and continue to waive any initiative and responsibility. Basically, the record is a collection of excellent and painful lyrics, heavily denotative in reference to a lifestyle of alcoholism, regret, sadness, disillusionment, and responsibility. Whether most of the lyrics reflect Francis' personal experience is up for debate or interview.
Overall Impression — 9
Probably the most notable factor of this album, even as opposed to Francis' other albums, is its inebriated and reminiscent general mood. Robert Francis, 19, writes as an old man, reflecting on his past and current miserable situations, as well as commenting and advising on those of others. It could almost be considered a concept album, due to its constant themes throughout. It is a bit more depressing than his next two albums, 2010's "Before Nightfall" and 2012's "Strangers in the First Place," his happiest album by far. However, "One by One" gives the listener a good kick in the pants to remind him or her about the realities of life. I would recommend this album for any musician or poet's studies, and any music-lover's meditations.