Chip Robinson's debut solo album Mylow just might be my pick for Roots album of the year. Chip was the head cowpoke in Raleigh, NC's The Backsliders. Their two late '90s alt-country albums arrived at the same time as local cohorts Whiskeytown's Faithless Street and Stranger's Almanac, and Ryan Adams, notoriety whore that he is, got all the pub. It's too bad because I always thought The Backsliders were the better band, and Chip Robinson the better songwriter.
So, eleven years went by. Chip's band got dropped by Mammoth, and he
disappeared from rock 'n roll and lived a sometimes dissolute life. It's
a familiar story. But he's come back with a beautifully written and
worldly wizened album that owes more to Tom Waits and Townes Van Zant
than the often moribund alt-country scene. The voice has lost some of
its twang but acquired several layers of grit and soul along the way,
and although there are still several raw, stinging rock 'n roll tunes
here, the album as a whole has a decided air of wistful vulnerability
and sorrow and loss about it, stories of screwing up and finding
redemption amidst the mud and the muck. In other words, Chip has
recorded my favorite kind of tunes. "The day I fell in love with you I
pissed off my wife and my girlfiend too," Chip sings on the rueful
"Fence," and you get the impression that he's not singing the usual,
run-of-the-mill cheatin' song.
There are some wonderful sonic
juxtapositions on this album -- the raw but hopeful uptempo title track
is followed by the accordion-driven dusty two-step of "Mylow Dreams,"
which sounds like it could be a hit in Paris, Texas or Paris, France.
The pensive folk dirge "Wings" gives way to the raging "Beesting," which
barrels out of the speakers like The Drive-By Truckers. There's a
superb cover of Ronnie Lane's all-but-forgotten gem "Kuschty Rye." And
he wraps it all up with "Wishin' on the Cars," one of the sweetest
lullabys you'll ever hear:
When your world is on fire
your feet are out of juice
Losin' balance on the wire
are comin' loose
I'll be there for you
He goes on like
that for a few more verses, mixing metaphors like some kind of crazed
lingusitic bartender, but the resulting concoction is so transparently
heartfelt and lovely that it doesn't really matter. Call it whatever
genre you like -- alt-country, folk, roots rock -- it all fits. But this
is the sound of honesty and somebody who knows how to articulate the
deep groanings of the heart. Those albums are rare in any form, and this
is a superb comeback.