Houston Music

Denice Franke

Even if you have watched Denice Franke evolve from a backup singer for Nanci Griffith to a tentative songwriter to a poet, you won't be prepared for the leap she's taken on her new album, Comfort. "I think there's something to be said / about the more in the less," she sings on "To the Light." That couplet nicely sums up the maturity of Franke's writing these days.

The Houston resident writes in a conversational style that bubbles with emotional intensity just below the surface. Her main theme here is "home" -- and how to create it. When you think about how we force our musicians to spend the bulk of their lives on the road to earn a living, it's an important question.

On "Friends Out There," Franke hints at the sadness of the peripatetic life, while "Hard Comin' Home" wonders whether it's really worth leaving at all. And on the achingly beautiful waltz tune "Dance to the Moon," Franke compares the continual grind of the road to a worn-down ritualized dance as well as the snarl of an old gray tomcat who's been fighting too long.

A single image recurs in several of Franke's songs: the moment when the traveler arrives home and is met at the door by a loved one. The image surfaces on "Personally," "Indifference" and "To the Light." Franke savors the shadows that fall on people's faces, the looks they give each other -- images that create a world of their own.

Houston producer and arranger Eric Taylor, better known for his own idiosyncratic music, adds muscle to Franke's songs. He understands how to make these tunes sound commercial without messing with their integrity. Taylor also straps on a guitar and bass; he's joined in the studio by keyboardist Mike Sumler and Lyle Lovett regulars cellist John Hagen and percussionist James Gilmer. They, along with Franke's nuanced vocals, take the music to a higher level. You can indeed take Comfort.