Top positive review
10 people found this helpful
In Peak Form
on October 8, 2013
For anyone new to Robbie, he's hard to categorize. Yes he's "country" but he has one excellent rock album and another collection of brooding songs that elude normal genres, to go along with his several superb country or alt-country albums. He's peppered his work with novelty songs, which I find unfortunate. They're better than anyone else's novelty songs, and they seemed popular at his live shows, but they distract from the great art he's creating on his serious work.
In 2005, I fell in love (and remain there) with "Georgia Hard," a throwback country album of wistful tunes that in large part channel a 1970s country sound. The difference is that his 70s music is better than the original stuff, because the lyrics are more compelling, the syrupy strings are gone or tamed, all the corny stuff is wrung out, leaving just superb songs of love and loss or rousing honky tonkers. And it may be this rare combination -- an intensely literate country boy -- that accounts for his limited following. A lot of country fans like to keep it simple, emotionally and intellectually. Robbie brings marvelous layers of depth and complexity to the lyrics while maintaining clarity with the music.
He's released a few things between 2005's Georgia Hard and 2013's Gone Away Backward, but none were "regular" studio efforts. "VC50 Doberman" is 50 songs for 35 bucks, in digital format only. "Revenge" is a two-disc live set that gave me the impression (false, I later learned) that his live performances are sloppy. And "Happy" is a set of Michael Jackson covers!
Anyhow, I finally got to see him live near my Pennsylvania home in September, 2013. I was disappointed at the beginning to see it was to be an acoustic, drumless four-man band. By the end, I felt I had a new favorite way to hear him perform. He covered plenty of old favorites and debuted a lot of the 12 songs from his new disc; this was my first time hearing them.
First, at age 50, Robbie's reedy tenor is in fine form; he sounds better than ever. It's not a "great" voice, but it's a genuine voice and ideal for his style of music. He played guitar, and his longtime collaborator Robbie Gjersjoe was brilliant on dobro. Rounding out the live band was Chris Scruggs on standup bass and Shad Cobb on violin/mandolin.
I liked these new songs instantly, and this acoustic foursome produced a rich and complex sound -- didn't miss the drums at all.
I'm still new to this new LP. Right now, my clear favorite is "When You Get to the Bottom" -- with lovely soaring harmonies (brings the Louvin Brothers to mind) as counterpunch to the sad tale within the lyrics. "That's Where I'm From" probably could have been the LP title, and again Robbie weaves a story as touching and textured as you can find, over delicate and lovely picking. "Imogene" is a slow, sparse song that would sound at home on a David Bromberg LP. There's a fiddle reel, a few more bluegrass-fed country songs, and one or two that defy categorization but might have been called jazz or blues at some point.
Interestingly, a few of these songs appear on "VC50 Doberman" in excellent but more raw versions. Here, they are more fully formed - polished yet not slick.
All told: brilliant songwriting, brilliant playing, perfectly matched vocals. It's not yet supplanted Georgia Hard as my favorite from Robbie, but it's a threat.