Your blood may run cold but it’s a heart-warming story. 63 year old Bob Frank’s first and last album was released by the Vanguard label in 1972. Although he never stopped writing songs, he has spent the entire interim working in Oakland as an irrigation specialist. This is not the sort of person who, in an industry obsessed with youth and fashion, could reasonably be expected to sign a record deal in 2007, let alone be taken up as the darling of Rolling Stone and Uncut magazines. Yet this is what has happened.
Catalyst in all this is 27 year old John Murry, on the face of it a fearsome man-mountain, who was introduced to Bob Frank as a potential cure for depression following his move to San Francisco (where both can now be found). Immediately tumbling into a love-hate-love-hate relationship (the old can’t live with or without you syndrome), they first of all grew some poppies and then started to write together. The project was to create a canon of murder ballads which nodded in the direction of tradition, but which were based on their own historical research. Thus, the album contains songs about an unrepentant killer (Boss Weatherford, 1933), about two contrasting lynchings (Tupelo, Mississippi, 1936 and Jesse Washington, 1916) and a legendary Mexican Robin Hood (Joaquim Murietta, 1853).
Bloodthirsty, of course, but with a strangely alluring beauty all of their own, the ballads on World Without End are encased in sumptuously inventive arrangements by Murry and producer Tim Mooney (American Music Club), but live, they operate as a duo, with Murry’s scratchy electric guitar inter-acting with Franks more traditionally picked acoustic. ”This guy came up to me after a show and accused me of ruining the songs by turning up my volume and drowning out Bob because I was supposedly in a bad mood”, complains John, in a manner that suggests that the audience member should really have kept his mouth shut. ”He didnt understand that this violent juxtaposition of sound is exactly what we are trying to create.”
And it undoubtedly works. The combination of the grizzled gentleman with the acoustic and the terrifying grunge-rocker (actually a sensitive intellectual with a strange way of showing it) makes for a stage show like you’ve never seen. Plus, they both have contrasting but equally mellifluous voices. As they brought their songs to a completely unprepared but soon converted European audience (the pair had never previously stepped outside the US), there were numerous cultural divides to be bridged but, as it should be, the music did the talking and the unique, unstudied nature of the characters triumphed. Theres always the danger with these things that there’s an element of artifice involved, but talk to these two for a couple of minutes and you realize that they are the real deal, innocents abroad almost, and all the better for it. They certainly don’t belong in the superficial world of the music industry.
Bob is resolutely laid-back about the project. “It was John’s idea to write the songs but we wrote them together. John is the creative impetus, hell, he came up with all the instrumentation, he even did all the design work. If I hadn’t met this guy, it would never have happened.”
John: ”The original idea was to record old murder ballads, but Bob writes story songs anyway, so it just sort of came together. They are as factually accurate as we could make them, but some have different historical versions and others are legends. Bubba Rose actually happened, we know that for sure.”
These guys are on an adventure which is the stuff of dreams but they remain blissfully unaware, taking each day as it comes and trying hard not to make reality out of art by actually murdering each other. How it all pans out is set to be one of the most intriguing episodes in recent musical history.