A Francis Plagne record is instantly identifiable. His quasi-falsetto voice always sounds like it's about to quaver, but it somehow manages to produce a smooth continuous tone. An acoustic guitar is always somewhere near at hand, feigning accompaniment yet always too convolving. It seems designed to demonstrate how he can barely pull off his own composition. Obvious adjectives to insert here would be frail, innocent, guileless, amateur. I'm amazed it doesn't repulse me, because I treat all delicate vocalese as manipulative theatrical posturing. Yet I feel there is a resignation to artifice in this busking entity, seeing as it seems to be performing its own inability to be a song or to be sung. This might be a key molecular dynamic of how Francis’s songs work.
While Francis studied and now teaches in Art History, his connection to recorded music history reminds us that all musicians these days are impressive historians. The seminal figures in his musical landscape would include Van Dyke Parks, Brian Wilson, Jack Nitzsche, (early) King Crimson, Joni Mitchell and Robert Wyatt. All these singer-songwriter-arrangers traded in progressively difficult propositions on song form, melodic logic and musical narration. As such, Francis can then be matrixed into an even wider continuum which includes Arthur Russell, Scott Walker, David Sylvian, Richard Youngs, Jim O'Rourke, Dean Roberts and Joanna Newsome. (I'm limiting to obvious references here.) The point is that Francis is part of a long-reaching soft underlay of mildly irritating songcraft upon which the conventions of pop song idioms dance. It's a field of singer/songwriters who are neither oppositional, alternative, nor revolutionary, as their love of the history of song in its conventional guise drives them to unproblematically counter the perceived wisdom of broad appeal songwriting.
I hope you're following me here. I fear if you're overly 'art oriented' (or 'artist privileging') you might miss this obvious but important point: the history of song is devoid of modernist deconstructive antagonism, because a song will always accept anything you think might be 'anti-song', rendering the concept a near useless tack. When Francis’s songs go off-kilter, change key erratically, stumble into a maze of disconnected parts, or dissolve into atonal sonics, they are still songs. Most of his songs are vocal — even if they only contain a few lines which unexpectedly crop up somewhere in a song's hidden valley. If this article is a commissioning of his portrait, then the representational content is his voice, his lyrics, his singing. But this troubling troubadour does not strike a pose against the velvet trappings of an ornate chamber, but places himself within a voided realm of abstract discontents — 'non-objective compositions' as per John Nixon. Just as John alchemically (as per Duchamp) dissolves himself into his black squares, orange fields and silver crosses, Francis similarly reconstitutes himself (his voice) within the framing devices of his songs.
Even though the figural presence of a singer-songwriter persists, the evidence of such often contradicts the findings. Certainly Francis’s voice is the aural fulcrum of all his songs, not due to the assumptive primacy of voice, but because all musical accompaniment corresponds to the precise decibel emission of his voice. The instruments are responsively played with mannered and measured execution, hovering between controlled technique and executed slippage. The classic Plagne tempo is about 80 bpm — the rhythm of a child at kindergarten nodding its head left to right, or you walking along a path on a sunny day without a care in the world. While the songs' arrangement, configuration and denouement can lean towards performative experimentalism, an aura of Pop orients the ear toward lighter spectra far away from the post-Cagean sonic explorations associated with the likes of the Wandelweiser composers. This is Francis archly playing with the inconvertible non-negotiable divide between his stated zones of 'popular and experimental music'. If he resides in terrains aligned with experimentalism, his welcoming of Pop prompts many questions: what is Pop doing here? what do we do with it once it's here? should it even be allowed here? Less a gesture toward inclusivity and more a strategy of multiplicity and simultaneity, the two realms are aligned through their unfit, and — as we shall see — locate each title from his recorded output a precise position within the Venn overlay of the popular with the experimental.
Of course, the singer-songwriter's fixture is built upon a bard's lyrics. Francis must attach sizable significance to his: most of his records contain printed lyric sheets. I've spent my life detesting literature even more than visual art, so I excuse myself from considering the lyrics too deeply. But I also detect that their impenetrability is a given, and that their poetics are cryptographic in nature. Some traits are perceivable. The tense is always present continuous, either locating Francis as an observer to an event in front of him or at the time of his remembering. Rather than a Dada/Tszara collaging of semantics or a Beat/Burroughs fracturing of phraseology, Francis’s thought-stream is akin to note-taking, list-making, thought-capturing. Its phrasing seems unedited, proposed, summarised, documented. This is counter to the music, which is archly determined, assembled and sequenced, resulting from elaborately rehearsed songbook crafting (chords, refrains, modulations, codas, etc.). The words are transitory floating sensations; the music generates the currents for their airborne journey. I don't profess to understand a single word written, but I remain in thrall to the way the music holds its lyrics at bay.