New Jersey based jam band, Mike Frank & Friends offers listeners a solid mix of Americana, jazz, blues, reggae and bluegrass. Their debut full length album, the 11-track Yellow Rays, showcases their prowess for musical interludes and improvisation while at the same time allows the band to share a fresh take on the musical process. Formed in the summer of 2008, the LP mixes acoustic songs written and performed by Mike Frank at local weekly Open Mic events throughout New Jersey and Pennsylvania. With the purpose to put together an album with musicians he met at various Open Mic nights and jam sessions, Yellow Rays adequately displays improvisational jams, likely taken from his energetic live performances.
With a solid local fan base, several of Mike Frank & Friends’ songs have been played on local college and public radio stations throughout New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Currently in the studio working on their sophomore follow-up due out later this year, Yellow Rays remains an adequate introduction to the band. The first track, six-minute long “Inside Out,” demonstrates the band’s passion for improvisation. The song begins with nearly a minute of instrumentals before Frank enters on vocals. Smooth, yet soulful, Frank’s singing style blends well with the jazzy electric guitar accompaniment and driving percussion. One of the longest songs on the album, “Inside Out” is a fitting overture, and remarkably never tires the listener.
“Wild Attraction” follows suit with light guitar finger picking before added percussion picks up the pace. While the music is no doubt the emphasis on this track, it tends to drown out Frank’s vocals and make his lyrics hard to decipher. Either a louder microphone or fewer guitars could have helped solve this problem. Clocking in at nearly five minutes, the inaudible singing drags the track to a close. More upbeat than the previous tracks, “Gotta Get Away” tells the story of a man trying to forget an ex. At the song’s start, the man suddenly is “seeing things in a different light.” Finally feeling alright, he decides it’s time to move on from his past. Though upset that his ex walked away and is now with a new man, he realizes he’s “gotta get away.” With jazz infused percussion and soaring guitar, the energetic musical accompaniment masks the sadness after a breakup.
Intricate guitar finger picking introduces next song, “Can’t Get Down.” Though just over a minute long, the guitar is the driving force on this track and when the song ends abruptly, the listener is left wanting more. Unfortunately, “Oh Hey” does not provide an anticipated follow-up. With deeper vocals masked by the musical accompaniment, Frank is lost amid heavy guitar and percussion.
It is on title track, “Yellow Rays” that Mike Frank & Friends’ true talent shines. The standout number livens up the album with fast-paced guitar and bass mixed in with ear-grabbing percussion. With more than a hint of southern soul, it is easy to envision the band’s fan base extending south of the tri-state area. The wavering guitar on “Yellow Rays” brings to mind that of John Mayer while “Heavy Heart” recalls Jack Johnson with soft guitar picking and Frank’s deep, soothing vocals. Added piano rounds out the track and gives the listener a glimpse of something new. A more serious side to the band, it is this versatility that impresses. Again, however Frank’s voice is drowned out. A slightly louder microphone could have greatly fixed this dilemma.
No doubt an impressive debut release, louder vocals could have only helped Yellow Rays. Additionally, while Mike Frank & Friends’ talent is undeniable, a shorter first track and album closure would have kept the listener more intrigued. The album ends with 10-minute long “Hello and Goodbye.” Eight minutes too long, Yellow Rays drags to a close. Instead, the band should have chosen to entice and end strongly. The fast-paced “Can’t Get Down” would have done the trick.
Reviewer: Annie Reuter
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)