Family Planning -
John Wayne Frankenstein
As the title of their full-length suggests, Portland, ME-based trio Family Planning’s John Wayne Frankenstein is as familiar as a classic western film, yet as alien and unsettling as the tragic humanoid in Mary Shelley’s novel. The band – made up of Billy Carr, guitar and vox; Jesse Heasly, bass; and Peter McLaughlin, drums and percussion – bring together erratic and shifting rhythms, crazed jazz and folk progressions, and innocent yet haunting vocals, displaying their uninhibited and innovative breed of songwriting.
Vulnerability plays a significant role throughout these 11 tracks. Many of the songs are intimate, reminiscent, and personal, reflecting on real and surreal scenes that seem to come from Carr’s subconscious, or a feverish hallucination, or a children’s book. “Dreams” is one track that has peculiar imagery, addressing the idea that a nightmare can be an adventure, how something disturbing can be beautiful. The rhythmic state of many of the songs is vulnerable as well, always evolving and building tension. Carr’s guitar and McLaughlin ’s percussion are so rhythmically connected that they seem like a single instrument. Heasly’s bass fills out the sound, thoughtfully supports the harmony, and adds well-timed melodic lines.
While this music holds a place in folk and pop with its simplicity and passion, it pays great respect to the complexity and experimentation of avant-garde and jazz. (Sounds like a contradiction, I know.) Songs like “Maple Syrup” drive along with deranged guitar riffs and rhythms, all under an infectious melody. They take the best of what they know and mold them together with a uniquely pleasant, yet freakish style.
These songs are raw. Like the frosty-wind-off-the-coast-of-Maine-in-late-January raw. They’re at their basic – guitar, bass, drums, and vocals – and the modest production allows these instruments to communicate without guise. Although the playing is superb and elaborate enough that it’s sometimes hard to grasp what the three are doing, it’s natural and unpretentious. Each musician understands their role in the song, giving themselves up to the art; never compensating, only expressing and projecting what the song has asked them to offer. “Heroes” is the best example of this, a catchy pop tune that floats along like a mysteriously melancholic dream.
If you think I’m saying that Family Planning has excellent musicianship, then you’re not getting the entire picture. They have more. Carr’s lyrics are perceptive and moving. His songwriting is simple, touching, and expressive. There’s nostalgia, there’s love and sensuality, there’s loss and regret. Among others, “Strawberry Tart,” “Consommé,” and “A Muse” only grow on me more fondly with every listen.
This band gives us a captivatingly uneasy selection of songs. They drift on a rain cloud between rock, folk, and avant-garde, creating their own frenzied style of expression. Family Planning is one of the musical gems of Maine and worth many repeated, reflective listens. I dig the weirdness, I dig the beautiful and disturbing imagery, and I dig a little more into myself when I listen to this album.