Katie here, and I’m going to be really honest: this week has been surreal. I wrote most of this essay in the dark on a closed toilet seat with two angry dogs while sirens went off. Evansville, Indiana was under tornado watch most of yesterday. That, in of itself, OK, at least it’s a sign of spring— but y’all. Pauly Shore was in town to do a show and spent most of yesterday morning in a bathroom in a Starbucks in Evansville. Seriously, it’s all on Twitter. I feel like I’m in a Charlie Kaufman movie or a Samuel Beckett play, but no one gave me my lines.
Well— the band I have the pleasure of introducing today, Fort Frances, actually gave me *some* lines. They’ve been my “song of the summer” twice since I met them— once with “Ghosts of California,” which is a beautiful acoustic song about desperately trying to get what you want (in this case, away from a place, and closer to a person), and finding that the reality doesn’t match up with the truth. That said? Every time I put it on, I’m transported. I have a whole playlist called “Shhh, It’s Fine, You’re in Southern California.” Every time the track starts and David McMillan (singer/writer) softly sings, “Tell me what it takes to remember/ Tell me what it takes to be good again/ Seven years running, trying to find the ocean/ Now the wind whispers, ‘Take me home, my friend’” I’m in another world. I never have to be “in my own head” when McMillan is running the show.. It’s something really special when he comes back to the line and sings, “Seven years running, trying to find the ocean/ Now we’re standing on the shore, without a word to say.”
Every single line is so carefully built— every line in the song comes back, but only halfway, as the characters fumble together and apart, trying to figure out what it means to have a dream.
For the last two summers at least, my most listened to song was actually a cover they did of the Fresh Prince & DJ Jazzy Jeff’s “Summertime,” which has all the nostalgia factor you might want, but in its minor keys and soft darkness, it subtly explains how all of those things that made us who we were— those summers when we were becoming ourselves, going to the pool, playing basketball, going to barbecues. trying to be attractive to partners— for better or worse, had a permanent effect on us. Those summer days where we first had cars and had to figure out what to do with ourselves defined who we are— because that’s when we started making character choices without our parents helping. Somehow, all of that is packed in the song. It’s one of my favorite cover songs of all time, and I have to admit, when it came out, my first thought was, “…that’s not going to work.” God, I am so glad I was wrong.
So what is Fort Frances doing now, outside of scoring my ennui?
“Double Take.” And you can take a second— take two! In fact, if you don’t listen to this song all day today, you are really missing out. And I’m saying that in large part because as a band, Fort Frances is, musically, defiantly joyful during clearly anxious times. So when the world around us became “Summertime” in a minor key, they decided it was time to turn around completely and put out the coolest, most addictive song I’ve heard in years. “Double Take” is full of delightful horns, guitar that sounds like it came straight out of the best funk and soul of the ‘70s and ‘80s, and a whole section of handclaps and decorative piano. (*Editorial note: You’ll have to clap on the steering wheel if you’re driving. It’s kind of a long section. I do recommend clapping along though so that you can also have fun.)
And that’s the best trick of “Double Take”— the music is delightful, and the lyrics are thoughtful. This is literally the best thing pop music can be: infectious and sneakily introspective. I’ve known the band for a very long time, and McMillan and I have kept in contact— but when he sent me the link for “Double Take,” I won’t lie, I was a little nervous to write him back. Because I have loved every Fort Frances record— “Double Take” is the first song that was so good it actually made me nervous to talk to him again.
I got starstruck— BY A FRIEND. That’s how good this song is.
Honestly, the hardest part about writing this review is that every single lyric is so good, I could write an essay purely discussing the nature of how it interacts with the current political and social climate and how that runs counter to human instinct. Instead, I’m just going to share the first verse and chorus. I want you to listen to the song. Desperately. I want you to go turn it on right now so that we can talk about it. I want you to message me on Twitter about how great “Double Take” is (so not kidding: @kwdarby). That said? Even reading these lyrics delights me.
Take a second
Do a double take
Let your brain unglue
Tie the minutes up
Like the laces on your shoes
With a double knot
To make sure you stay confused
I’ve been praying for good luck
But the world don’t seem to give a fuck
About which way is up
Or which way is down
The rabbit hole
Better known as your soul
I’ve been losing sleep over what I cannot control
There’s always a little bit further to go
Well I never (*exuberant brass flourish)
Seem to keep it together
I dream a lot about forever
But at the end of the day
I wake up wondering whether
All my debts and my debtors
Will ever read this letter
About forgiving, forgetting, and moving along
For me, the key to the song rests in the brilliance of encouraging the listener to pause, but the anxiety of the song, despite its tendency toward delight, rests in a few secret-handshake lines— “But at the end of the day/ I wake up wondering” is a fantastic reversal— and isn’t that how it feels sometimes? Like we have to, as poet Tony Hoagland famously said, “Force joy like a knife into our hearts”? Despite moments like that— and “…imagine a tomorrow you can lay to rest/ All the worries of win or lose/ All the headlines of fake news/ All the walls we never managed to break through/ Take a second/ Take two”— it is so easy to forget the effectiveness of McMillan’s lyrics when listening to what I think is the most upbeat, wonderful pick-me-up song. Most of Fort Frances’s songs are like that— they are easy to listen to and absolutely beautiful, either tonally or melodically. But McMillan has a lyrical blade behind his back. I mean— we are talking about a band who put “Summertime” in a minor key. They’ve got some things figured out.
Speaking of songs you can’t cover and Fort Frances, this Valentine’s Day, they released a version of Tom Waits’s “I Hope That I Don’t Fall in Love with You.” An ambitious undertaking, to be sure— maybe too ambitious. You really can’t cover Tom Waits, a gravel-throated singer and an unparalleled writer. You actually couldn’t pay me enough to try to sing one of his songs. They’re stories built on characters written for Waits’s voice.
So of course, Fort Frances took it on. McMillan is absolutely fearless when it comes to music and covers. And by now, I should know better than to ever doubt the abilities of Fort Frances.
McMillan strips the song just to piano (with an occasional strings flourish), and even though this particular song shows a slightly more vulnerable side of Waits, Fort Frances pushes that emotion hard. The song goes from, “I hope that I don’t fall in love with you,” to “I hope that you don’t fall in love with me,” and finally to, “I think that I just fell in love with you”— all about a girl he’s just met, and he’s fallen in love— but only because she’s disappeared. The setting is a bar that is slowly closing down. Lyrically, it has always linked me to Springsteen’s “Tunnel of Love,” where he says, “The lights go out and it’s just the three of us/ You, me, and all that stuff we’re so scared of.” The funny thing is, when I hear Waits sing the lyrics, I’m reminded of Springsteen’s similar moment in a similar bar— but McMillan is able to capture the bluntness of loneliness in a way that changes the tone of the song.
In short— this is a unique and more open way than I have ever heard a Tom Waits song. I’ve been writing about music since I was 18, and I’ve never been able to write that sentence. It’s obviously beautifully written, but even the parts where Waits comes back to himself and tries to defend or explain, McMillan takes another route, vocally, where he almost seems sad and uncomfortable— like he doesn’t like the parts of him that are at THIS bar, on THIS night, trying “not” to fall in love with someone, even though— especially in the Fort Frances version— he absolutely IS trying to find someone who could love him, someone he could love back. I mean, look at Waits’s lyrics, and then listen to McMillan sing them. It’s an incredible sleight of hand to take bravado and, in your own voice, decry it and wish it weren’t part of you. In Waits’s (again, perfect) version, this is a moment of explanation and a way of protecting himself. But remember I told you McMillan writes with a blade? He also sings and arranges with one. This was always my favorite part of the song— but in the Fort Frances version, it manages to pack even more of a punch, because that blade has clearly cut into his heart.
Well the night does funny things inside a man
These old tom-cat feelings you don't understand
Well I turn around to look at you
You light a cigarette
I wish I had the guts to bum one
But we've never met
And I hope that I don't fall in love with you
What a brilliant lie. Of course he hopes he falls in love with her, and she with him. And McMillan is able to capture that vocally without straying too far from the original.
Fort Frances will be playing the Underwater Sunshine Fest on April 5th and 6th. I’d encourage you to be there: I’ve seen them play a few times, and it’s always magical. In fact, part of the reason I started by talking about an old song, one they aren’t promoting— is that was one of the first times I’d ever been at a concert and cried through a song I’d never heard. I’d say “welcome to the family,” but Fort Frances has always been family. So I guess I’ll just say: welcome home, guys.