In recent years, the forever-improbably monikered Francis Farewell Starlite has carved out a name for himself as a producer and songwriting collaborator for other artists, including Kanye West, Justin Vernon, and Chance the Rapper. Yet his solo releases only garner cult attention and fly far lower, frequently eluding detection. Fittingly for a rather unassuming artist, Just for Us was a surprise release, showing up with very little fanfare in that place where news goes to die, the time between Christmas and New Year’s Day.
Just for Us feels, as do many of Francis and the Lights’ releases, like musical sketch pads. Ideas and track lengths are only as long as they need to be. These are impeccably produced songs that feel like working versions. Instead of feeling unfinished, that gives them a friendly familiarity, like being invited over to a friend’s house to hear some of the music they’ve been working on.
Starlite has an unrivaled knack for writing music that sounds simultaneously ready for the dancefloor and for late night heartsick headphone listening. The title track is a superb example of this, a three-minute slice of modern electro-pop with old school R&B overtones. “Back in Time” sounds like Hall & Oates jamming with Usher lamenting the unidirectional nature of the space-time continuum. “Morning” mixes pensive piano pop with optimistic streaks of synthesizers that sound like little beams of light poking through a thickly clouded winter sky. “Never Back” has the warped electro-soul of Bon Iver and sounds like it’s 10 seconds away from turning into a club anthem, but every time you think it’s about to explode, the tempo stays downbeat, and instead new instrumentation enters: strings, treated woodwinds.
Just for Us isn’t a major statement. Francis and the Lights speak carefully and forge an accessible yet intimate atmosphere. But this record has the quiet passion of someone working up the nerve to tell you they love you. | Mike Rengel