If the Saddle Creek Records gang knows one thing, its how to spot a singer-songwriter who can successfully pull off folk rock. Oregonian Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson is in many ways the poster boy for the labels intimate rockers, but hes also a grand example of how an indie act can make accessible music that should be on your radio station. (Well, if anyone listened to the radio anymore, youd hear him there.)
On his sophomore release, Summer of Fear, Robinson doesnt flinch from the pressure of following up on his eponymous debut. From start to finish, this album sounds like Robinsons attempt to be a classic troubadour in todays lo-fi scene. His voice has an accessible roughness to itthink more Paolo Nutini than Bob Dylanthat helps him stick out from many male vocalists on the indie scene whose indifferent voices could put you to sleep. That said, he certainly channels Dylan when he gets the chance, most notably on the epic More Than a Mess, the records penultimate track. The song begins with ambling horns and patient drums that seem to exist merely to back Robinsons straining vocals. By the time Robinson begins to wail four minutes in and rushes through his narrative, the brass gets a bit louder and the drums hint that theyre up to something. Eventually the music and vocals get louder, on the verge of breaking into a full-on jam. Instead, the music drops out two separate times, allow for an organ and sullen guitar to take center stage. The song fades into the next, making it the nearly 12-minute jam that never quite was.
That, in a nutshell, is Summer of Fear. For 12 tracks you get a lot of promise of greatness, and a few moments live up to the promise, but much of it is merely good. And plenty of it is just there. Perhaps Robinson was too confident in his abilities and didnt have any nerves to push him further. Always an Anchor, for example, sounds like a less quirky Patrick Wolf number, with its clap-happy rhythm and string interjections. However, Hard Row is a smooth, low-key number that is unspectacular in every way imaginable, but it works because the ease of his delivery is bold. The song doesnt attempt to segue into a grand finale, nor do the lyrics attempt to announce themselves. The last third of the track speeds up and suggests the band was in the studio and simply felt as if the rhythm needed a little push. Its a polished track thats still organic, and it feels refreshing on this LP. Its what the entire album strives to be and often misses, but just barely.
The title track is split into two parts, aptly titled Summer of Fear Pt.1 and Summer of Fear Pt. 2, more successfully achieves the epic aim of More Than a Mess, even if it, too, feels padded. Part of that feeling is due to the fact that a separate track is inserted between the two parts, and the two parts arent simply the same song divided in two. Pt. 1 is the sunnier side, with an enjoyable but forgettable carefree stroll through soft rock. The next track, Death by Dust, is an edgier track driven by screeching electric guitar and a powerful set of strings and horns when the finale comes around. The idea is that this is the turning point from the optimistic Pt. 1 and Pt. 2 will show the flip side. In a sense it is darker, as it ambles more than its predecessor, but its back in MOR territory. Were the two trackseach running just over five minutespushed together, you would not make it to the 10-minute mark. Divided into two, with a stronger track as the divider, they play well with each other. Perhaps Robinson wouldve been better stringing the three together in a truly epic 15-minute tune that takes listeners on a more dynamic arc than the mellower More Than a Mess does.
Unfortunately, you cant judge an album by what its not or what it could have been. Many of the pieces on Summer of Fear allude to a better album, and the vocals, lyrics, and arrangements prove Robinson a talent to watch. He has the tools to make a stellar album, one that lives up to the promise of his debut. And the passion in his voice suggests these songs are completely different animals live, so his shows might be the best venue for them. For now, hes given us an OK effort that leaves us curious about whats next in his repertoire. You might not give this album that many spins, but you probably wont forget about Robinson soon.