And true to form, this singer-songwriter and accomplished guitarist is plying strings and vocals, with solid accompaniment, in a way reminiscent of his 2012 EP, “U.S. 50” – yet taking the stripped-back acoustic sound and poetic messages to another level.
Whether it’s the haunting metal body Dobro resonator and softly swishing cymbals in “River” or the driving, rapid-fire strum, mixed with a steady beat and alternating time changes in “Straight to the Top,” songwriter John Fries combines guitar lovers’ acrobatics with intimate, frank lyrics and a voice both powerful and raw.
I remember when I first heard Fries’ signature song, “Technicolor You.” Immediately loved the syncopated rhythm, the sweet lover’s apostrophe, and that voice – so natural, gravelly, and resonant. That was 2012. Now, five years later, there is an added urgency to the guitar work, particularly evident in his use of three different types of resonators, and underscored by solid drumming, piano and supporting vocals.
There’s urgency in the writing, too.
“If you’re living in the past, you can forget about your future,” he sings in “Friend.” Whether he’s addressing someone else or talking to himself, as songwriters like to do, the message is the same: “Months and months become years and years/ Without a change is your greatest fear.”
Get on with life, he seems to say. And he does – taking us into other lives and places on other tracks.
“On the Inside,” a quick foray into the worlds of love and friendship, is a poignant portrait. Exactly who the song is about isn’t clear, but what really matters is that this person is important to the singer, who is trying to “make some sense” of what he feels. “Everybody knows how your story’s going to end,” he sings, interested and distancing himself at the same time from someone “stuck in your own mind/drowning in the sands of time.”
On the third track, guitar licks hammer mercilessly as a character who “Can’t Be Satisfied” moans to a woman that he’s got trouble on his mind. A conflicted, timeless, lament, sympathetic in its urgency, with an upbeat tempo that belies the angst.
It’s a good choice to end with “River,” a masterful tonic for “circumstances you cannot change.” His words focus on misleading promises and pain, the scene a desperate one. “Put your best foot forward,” he sings, “straight into your grave,/ tumbling backwards to an uncertain end …/ like a river … /picking up the loose ends and washing them away.” Fries’ voice is softer here, tender. He understands misleading promises and pain, making his art bend to reflect its influence.
The entire collection is a gentle embrace of the listener in songs riddled with a common man’s themes, sophisticated instrumentation, and a soul searching for – and finding – empathy and insight.
Here, then, is a taste, in his own words, of what drives John Fries:
Q: Does the music come first for you or the lyrics?
Almost all of the time it’s music first or a combination of music & vocal melody first.
Q: Straight to the top is quintessentially you! Musically. Where did the idea for this song come from?
Lol thanks, that was a song that took a while to sink in for everyone in the band at the time…. For me this one is classic R&B. I’ve always loved this type of music and this song is my best shot at it!
Q: Who’s accompanying your guitar and vocals?
Corina Malbaurn: Bass & backing vocals
Ben LaRose: Drums & backing vocals
Eric Michael Lichter: Piano
Q: How long has it been since your last EP? What would you like your fans to know about what’s different this time around?
The last EP I released was “US 50” back in 2012. This one is quite a bit different in that it’s 100 percent acoustic and is largely live in the studio. Where there are overdubs, we tried to keep them to a minimum.
Q: Are you performing this EP? When and where?
I actually don’t play out any more, my time these days is focussed on my two kids. With that said I may make a comeback soon…. we’ll see!
Q: Who’s your favorite songwriter? Why?
That’s tough. To be honest, I like such a wide range of music; there’s no way I could pick one single artist. I try to listen to as many different genres as I can.
In any given week I could go from listening to Eric Clapton to The Black Crowes or D’angelo to the Allman Brothers or A Tribe Called Quest to Martin Sexton.
Last week I was on a Buena Vista Social Club kick.
So I really do love to mix it up!
To learn more about this artist or buy “John Fries: Unreleased Acoustic EP” visit: