Review: Robot Raven, Greatest Hits, Part One

Robot Raven, Greatest Hits, Part One

24 Mar, 2016 Ken Bays

robotraven

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