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Robot Raven, Greatest Hits, Part Two
Merriam-Webster defines an earworm as “a song or melody that keeps repeating in one’s mind,” even after it’s no longer playing. It’s the tune you can’t get rid of, the one that keeps you awake at night, echoing through your cerebral cortex until you’re forced to grab your CD and listen to it. We’ve all had them; it’s such a ubiquitous phenomenon, in fact, that researchers in the last ten years or so have been studying how earworms happen — and how to get rid of them.
Robot Raven knows a thing or two about earworms. Not only do they have a song with that title on their latest album, Greatest Hits, Part Two — “Just a catchy number goin’ through my brain/Over and over repeatin’ the refrain,” go the lyrics — but they seem to be masters at creating those little auditory opiates, too. In the past year alone, they’ve issued two 18-track collections filled with more memorable hooks and riffs than you can shake a stick at. If you’re a sucker for a catchy melody, this recording outfit of mysterious origin will be right up your alley — especially if you’re also a devotee of classic rock, the genre that’s clearly at the heart of Robot Raven’s list of influences.
“Two Heads, One Heart” is the best example of the group’s fondness for throwing rock’s most memory-sticking elements into their musical stew. Stylistically it evokes the studio rock of a band like Alan Parsons Project, while a tense, nervy keyboard part and choppy, percussive guitar give it a New Wave tint. “I Want to Know You” goes a little further into rock’s back pages — no drums, no drama, just Kingston Trio folk harmonies over earnest acoustic strumming.
“Second Chance” is a minor-key burner whose sliding, swooping guitar lines echo the soft glow of George Harrison, though the vocal hews closer to the brittle sneer of Roger Waters. “Tonight” has the innocence and sweet melodic pull of an early Beatles ballad — think “If I Fell” or maybe “Nowhere Man” — while the aforementioned “Earworms” recalls something from the rockabilly revival of the early ’80s. The upbeat “Dreamacres,” a hoedown ode to farm life, is built on what sounds like the same backing track as “Finger Lickin’,” from the band’s other 2015 release, Greatest Hits, Part One, except this time there’s a whistling solo. “Winter’s on My Mind” is this album’s most charming cut; its wistful steel guitar flourish gives it both a country tint and a trace of the gauzy, hypnotic dream-pop of “Fade Into You” by ’90s alt-rockers Mazzy Star.
In truth, it’s a good thing that Robot Raven is so skilled at composing catchy riffs and melodies, because their lyrics can be rather vague. When you get to the part of “Winter’s on My Mind” that goes, “Maybe it’s the season/Feelin’ so left behind/Maybe it’s the weather, babe/Or a couple things combined,” one wants to ask the singer what those couple things are. A few caustic songs near the album’s start creates a listening juxtaposition — “Party Lines, Party Lies” attempts to make a case for the abolishment of America’s two-party political system, even humorously interpolating a bit of “Hail to the Chief” on guitar, but it fails to offer a better alternative. “Mr. Inappropriate” feels hypocritical in its demonizing of a guy who’s full of “opinions ‘bout politics/First one to pick a fight,” because, after all, that’s what political opinions are. And the narrator of “Ricochet” is downright obnoxious, wanting to “rain on your parade and watch you pout/You know I’d be there laughing out loud.” It’s not that there’s anything wrong with music being used to express resentment; it’s that Robot Raven, at its heart, spins an easy, breezy cotton candy rather than a big ole elephant ear.
Review by Ken Bays
Rating: 3.5 stars
Robot Raven, Greatest Hits, Part One
It’s hard to find any biographical info on Robot Raven, and that’s no doubt intentional. Mystery has always been a part of the appeal of rock ‘n’ roll, and this American band, which has been together only a short time, uses that fact to its advantage by keeping its identity mostly under wraps. If you dig deeply enough, the right kind of Googling will eventually lead you to some answers, but we’re not going to give too much away here — Greatest Hits, Part One is the type of album that’s more fun when your mind is left to wonder about the circumstances behind its creation.
And “fun” is the key to enjoying Robot Raven’s material, which sounds like someone took every classic rock cliché — every power chord, every paean to peace and love, every rhyming couplet whose second half you can see coming as soon as you hear the first — and threw them in a blender. This is a group that, not content to wear its influences on its sleeve, proudly emblazons them on the front of its shirt, proclaiming allegiance to the faux-symphonic majesty of Electric Light Orchestra, the soaring mysticism of The Moody Blues, the bombastic harmonies of Queen and the pure pop melodicism of The Beatles. Above all, it’s a veritable kaleidoscope of catchiness, with more hooks than a boxing match. In short, this is undemanding music meant for sheer sonic enjoyment rather than deep thought. And on those grounds, it succeeds admirably.
Robot Raven is at its best when the focus is lighthearted rowdiness, as on “Three Bar Blues,” “Goodbye Elvis” and “Finger Lickin’.” “Three Bar Blues,” its title a clever bit of wordplay, is a tune decrying laws that have made it a crime to smoke in bars; musically it combines the melodic pull of mid-period ELO (think “Hold On Tight,” for example) with a blues progression of the fast-and-poppy variety. “Goodbye Elvis” has a rockabilly vibe punctuated by swirling new wave organ, a high-speed keyboard solo with echoes of Jerry Lee Lewis, and jokey lyrics that merely use Mr. Presley as a jumping-off point (“My brain has left the building/may have left too soon”). “Finger Lickin’,” with its handclaps and barstool singalong vocals, recalls Queen’s “Fat Bottomed Girls” in its over-the-top double entendres (“She’s a big plate of chicken/a side of beans and rice/she’s enough to whet my appetite/enough to add some spice”). It’s probably the album’s best track, and it’s certainly the funniest, especially given the Celtic-sounding fiddle that so absurdly provides the melodic hook.
“Meet Me in the Middle” opens the album with a ’60s folk-rock bounce. “Cup Half Full” and “One More Day Forever” present Robot Raven in full-on Moody Blues mode, the former capturing that band’s synthy, light psychedelia persona, the latter its folkier side. The tightly woven harmonies and ’50s pop classicism of “Living to Dream” evoke the 1970 cover of Donnie Brooks’ “Mission Bell” by the pre-Buckingham/Nicks incarnation of Fleetwood Mac. And the uptempo “DNA” calls to mind the blue-eyed R&B of George Fame even as its words playfully tackle the much more contemporary topic of cloning: “I’m not an enzyme to formulate/Stay away from my DNA.” There’s hard rock here, too: “Hoodrat” sounds like the trashy late-’70s arena-rock riffage of Ted Nugent, while the head-banging “Don’t Kill the Messenger” possesses more than a touch of the early metal crunch of Black Sabbath.
It’s only when the guys attempt social commentary that things go a bit south, as Robot Raven just doesn’t seem to have the lyrical acuity to do anything more than scratch the surface. The anthemic “World Class Bullies” tries to express protest-song sentiments, but any potency is lost when the words devolve into poorly articulated metaphors and an ambiguous message — is it peace they’re calling for, or is it retribution? Fortunately, such moments are rare on this 18-track set. Greatest Hits, Part One may be cheekily titled — clearly, none of its songs has been a hit, even in the broadest sense — but they are pretty great, provided you don’t take them too seriously.
Review by Ken Bays
Rating: 4 stars
Adam Naylor, Lost in a Rhythm
Adam Naylor makes the kind of pleasant, modest music you’d expect from a guy for whom music is more a hobby than a profession. His folky acoustic tunes don’t stray far from traditional song structures and seem to wear their hearts on their sleeves, with lyrics that mean what they say and say what they mean. That’s not a criticism; on the contrary, in today’s irony-obsessed culture it’s refreshing to hear a songwriter with such an utter lack of pretentiousness to his material. You get the feeling — based on Naylor’s newly issued fourth collection of songs, at least — that this 25-year-old Scotland native just wants to use music as a communication tool, to connect with others through his craft.
Naylor plays and sings all 13 tracks on Lost in a Rhythm himself, and that’s both a blessing and a curse. While the man-guitar-and-computer simplicity has its charm on songs like the album-opening “Morning Light,” which, in its bright cheeriness, sounds like a Celtic version of one of Neil Young’s more lightweight romantic numbers from late in his career (think “Silver & Gold” or another of Young’s tunes from the 2000 album of that same name), at other times the bare-bones approach makes things sound too much like a demo. “Directions,” for example, starts out beautifully, all hard-strummed acoustic guitars and clever turns of phrase like “There’s nothing wrong with being honest when you’re lost in a lie” — but then, about two minutes in, electronic drums enter and detract from the magic. Indeed, the fake drums are a problem throughout much of Lost in a Rhythm; songs such as the upbeat “It Makes Your Eyes Light Up,” the galloping, outward-looking “Even From Far Away” and the otherwise catchy “Over the Horizon” cry out to be recorded either with a live percussionist or with no rhythm track whatsoever.
Fortunately, the selections that exclude drums are also some of the best-sung and best-written songs here, which means we’re left with a handful of very good tunes. “Have a Go” hints at eternal truths through lyrics extolling the virtues of risk-taking as well as through its uncomplicated, classic-pop melody. The melancholy, yearning ballad “Before I Knew,” featuring lines like “Sometimes I say it’s crucial to value all that we have done/And then you tell me I’m not being truthful and I might be wrong,” is another highlight. Best of all is “Losing My Desire,” which adds a stately piano line to the mix and has Naylor contributing his own harmony vocals to gorgeous effect. (And about those harmonies: Maybe it’s just Naylor’s Glaswegian inflection, but, to American ears, at least, the layered vocals make him sound not unlike his folk-singing countrymen The Proclaimers. The result is transcendent, making you wish Naylor would record a whole album this way.)
Other standouts include “The Final Step,” a hymnlike mid-tempo number that makes good use of emotional dynamics, and the minor-key “We’re On Our Way,” where uncertainty (“The further we go way out on the road/The less that we know”) eventually gives way to optimism (“We’ll live another day/’cause we’re on our way”). The lyrics, here and all over the album, are vague enough to be applicable to nearly all of us, yet have just the right amount of specificity to sound heartfelt. That’s a hard balance to maintain, and the fact that Naylor is able to do so makes it easy to overlook some of his more hackneyed lines. Lost in a Rhythm may not be an earth-shattering recording, but it does end up being an agreeable collection of unassuming tunes that reveal Naylor as an artist with plenty of potential. And sometimes that’s enough.
Review by Ken Bays
Rating: 3 stars