Album Review: Frank Turner – Positive Songs For Negative People

Frank Turner Positive Songs for Negative People cover

I wasn’t sure what to expect from folk-punk Frank Turner for his sixth album, Positive Songs For Negative People. His previous studio album, Tapedeck Heart, had some upbeat songs, but had an overall theme of heartbreak. A later B-sides collection followed suit, making me question is Turner had decided to forgo his punk heritage for a softer, folkier sound. But after he previewed a few new songs at his Wellington show on the last night of the tour earlier this year, I was satisfied that the new album would still have enough grit.

Opening track ‘The Angel Islington’ isn’t Frank Turner positive songs for negative peopleabout buying a blue property in a game of Monopoly. Instead, in his typically English style, Turner sings about cleansing himself in the river and promising to start over. He’d decided to brush himself off and push on after the melancholic previous album, with this song signalling the change in attitude. It’s an idyllic little acoustic track reminiscent of other folk songs he’s done in the past, but it’s also the least interesting song on the album. This makes the following song sound even better and louder by comparison.

‘Get Better’ is by far the best song on the album. Obviously it’s the most familiar song, having been available for many months, but that doesn’t undermine how good it is. It’s a real stomper that gets me so fired up every time I hear it. I rate it among the best he’s written.

Bad weather is used as an extended metaphor throughout the album. ‘The Next Storm’ is about getting outside and living life, rather than hunkering down and waiting the storm out. ‘The Opening Act of Spring’ covers similar themes, with less of a fighting spirit. Backed by jangly mandolin, Turner details his hope for forgiveness and a better life once the storm has passed. ‘Mittens’ is a ballad that uses the imagery of mittens and gloves to tell the story of how a relationship never quite fit right.

Fighting for quality of life is another central theme. ‘Out Of Breath’ is about outrunning Death, and it’s played at such a pace that it seems that the musicians are almost tripping over themselves. ‘Demons’ sends the message that it’s great to be alive, so fight the demons that try to drag you down.

The fighting metaphor is taken literally in the music video for ‘The Next Storm’, which shows Turner in the ring with American wrestler CM Punk.

For both “Josephine’ and ‘Silent Key’, Turner has used historic figures as a basis for the song, adding even greater depth to the lyrics. ‘Josephine’ is pretty infectious with the “woahs” and ‘Silent Key’ is catchy with the repeated lyrics, but sadly I can’t stand the guest vocals sung by Esmé Patterson.

It’s the positive messages of the album that have resonated with me more than the music. The music is great though. Obviously the singles are among the strongest tracks. Other highlights include ‘Glorious You’, ‘Demon’ and ‘Love Forty Down’, which are all rousing because of the way Turner belts out his passionate vocals. Positive Songs for Negative People contains the same style that you’ve come to expect from the previous five albums, distilled into 40 minutes of folk-punk. I prefer the heavier and more upbeat sound on this album over the somewhat depressing Tapedeck Heart.

Frank Turner (1) positive songs for negative peopleThe Sleeping Souls prove themselves once again as the perfect backing band for Turner.They rock out when they need to, and they colour the music tastefully when it pulls back. Two of the finer musical moments on the album include the cut out during the bridge of ‘Glorious You’ and the gorgeous harmonies in the outro of ‘Demons’.

There are two songs that sum up the album. ‘Glorious You’ is all about support and accepting who you are. And the most powerful is saved for last. ‘Song For Josh’ is a
tear-jerker about a friend who had committed suicide, recorded live at the venue that Josh used to run. Somber as it is, this touching tribute really emphasises the overall message of the album – that life is worth fighting for.

Positive Songs for Negative People is suitably named. The negative people are there, the weirdos and outsiders; those who are pinned down by the storms and the demons. But overall the album is affirming and rousing, shouting a message loud and clear: “I’m alive and I’m going to fight to keep it that way”.

It’s not the best Frank Turner album (England Keep My Bones still stands as my favourite), but it’s still pretty great. It has tender moments, brilliant lyrics, uplifting messages and some ripping rock music.

Joseph James

Album Review: Frank Turner – The Third Three Years (B-sides collection)

Frank Turner Third Three Years

Folk-punk troubadour Frank Turner stays true to his DIY hardcore roots by releasing a third b-sides collection with a nod to Black Flag.

Turner had hardcore/punk origins as front man of the band Million Dead. After Million Dead, er … died, Turner began a solo career with a folk sound along the lines of Billy Bragg and the late Joe Strummer. He’s worked hard touring and recording consistently over the years, and now has begun to achieve relative commercial success, having headlined at Wembley Arena and played at the London Olympics opening ceremony in recent years.

This is Turner’s third collection of b-sides, following his last album Tape Deck Heart. The title and album art  are inspired by The First Four Years from seminal hardcore outfit Black Flag.

I’m a bit late to the party reviewing this album, but sometimes it takes a while for things to arrive in New Zealand when I have to order them from overseas. It was worth the wait though.

I’ve kept up with some of Turner’s non-album output, such as Daytrotter sessions, but I was pleased to discover that Third Three Years contained music that was almost entirely new to me, including some unreleased gems. The collection comprises of covers,  b-sides from EP’s and singles and obscure recording sessions.

In fact, nearly half the collection are up of covers. Turner covers his bases with his choices. There are classic bands (Queen, Tom Petty), folk singers (Townes Van Zandt) and punk artists (Tony Sly, The Weakerthans). These covers do well to encompass Turner’s very British style of folk-punk. Many of the covers are stripped back, giving the overall album a more somber feel. But hey, anybody who can take on a song by Freddie Mercury and do it justice deserves a thumbs up in my books.

There are a few alternative outtakes from his latest album, Tape Deck Heart. My favourite from that album, “The Way I Tend To Be” is given different treatment with extra mandolin and piano.

There are two collaborations with other artists. “Happy New Year” is a humourous and unpretentious ditty with Jon Snodgrass and “Fields Of June” is a country number by Emily Barker that Turner features on. These duets work nicely to add a bit of variety to the mix.

The rest of the songs are just what you’d expect, punk ethos singer-songwriter music with breathless singing and swear-word filled shouting. Although this is what I expected, I didn’t expect so much solo work. Turner’s touring band, The Sleeping Souls seem absent from these recordings. A few songs are collaborations with other musicians – Revival Tour style DIY camaraderie – but other than a mandolin, organ or added guitar accompaniment here or there, there is a marked lack of a full band of most tracks. The Sleeping Souls are credited on nine songs, but it’s pretty subtle because they’re hard to detect.

B-sides collections like these are never as strong as a cohesive studio album, but can offer rare gems for the diehard fans. There are a lot of songs (21!), and although most are not considered ‘good enough’ to make the cut, fans won’t be disappointed. And they should know what to expect, because any serious Frank Turner will likely have The First Three Years and The Second Three Years anyway.

Overall this album is a bit too sedate to get regular play through my speakers. There is more of a folk focus than punk. I’m more likely to select the handful of songs that I enjoy more and include them in playlists than listen to the entire collection. But just to show that he’s not getting soft, Turner closes off the CD with a rip-roaring live version of “Dan’s Song”. It’s furiously fast and explosive, just like punk music should be.

Frank Turner put on an excellent show in Wellington in April 2013 with his backing band, The Sleeping Souls. He’s returning this April to play sideshows from the Byron Bay Bluesfest. Details can be found through the Chicks That Scream Facebook page.

Joseph James