Nine Pound Hammer Heart is the debut CD by Melly Frances and the Distilled Spirits, a group built around singer/songwriter Melanie Sponselee (AKA Melly Francis) and her backing band, fronted by guitarist/keyboard player Tom Cusimano of the local roots band the Riders. The nine track disc is a blues-rock potpourri, with Frances’ husky blues-mama voice pushing hard on track after track. Listeners familiar with Janis Joplin and especially Susan Tedeschi will feel right at home with Frances, though some of the songs work better than others.
Cusimano produced, and the arrangements have a “live in the studio” sound. On some of the songs this results in both Frances and harp player Murph McCree being swamped in a sea of reverb, as on “Bootlegger’s Ball.” She sings with plenty of gusto, and has a good set of pipes, though the intonations and aggression in her growl will sound familiar to listeners who cut their teeth on Janis’ Big Brother discs. “All I Seen” has acoustic backing and Frances powers through, making one wish for the ever-elusive lyrics (not included, nor is it clear exactly who has written what material).
After taking a few tracks to get going, “I Got More Soul Than You” delivers an impressive vehicle for Frances and company to launch into a grinding, bluesy standout track that lets her cut loose with the best vocal here, and has room for Cusimano to play a nasty guitar solo, along with lots of harp by McCree. “Honey” works the familiar buzzing bee metaphors with a more brisk beat, juicy guitar riff, and Cusimano’s acid-rock lead break helps transport the vibe to the late ‘60s. These two tracks lift the entire project up a notch.
Some nice bass work by Darren Wagner powers “Rebel Girl,” which has more of a funk feel than any other track here. Frances chews the scenery with the vocal, though, and the overdone vocal mannerisms and anguished moans demonstrate the one largely missing ingredient on the disc: subtlety, a softer side. The next song, “He Caught Fire,” shows a taste of this with a more restrained and jazzy approach – and it’s a highlight. Upright bass work, background harp, and acoustic lead guitar take an unhurried journey, as Frances sings “Behind every broken woman is an even sadder man” and other lines, without pushing it too hard. “Weeping Willows” has a different, catchy lick that sounds like a tune from a different disc, except for the way-heavy reverb of the lead vocal. But, it is a good song, one of the best here, despite the production decision being made to sound like it was sung at one end of a canyon.
With Nine Pound Hammer Heart Melly Francis and the Distilled Spirits
shows both promise in several of the songs and performances, and the pitfalls of some independently produced debut discs that lack polish.