Inspired, he himself puts it, by, “The countless no-hit wonders on those old 78s, or the old Folkways and Topic records from the 50s, particularly the story songs and ballads,” Robert Chaney has developed a powerful songwriter’s voice of his own. Taking the bold decision to move from Florida to London and throw himself on the mercy of the open-mic scene, led to a simple twist of fate and the recording of his densely lyrical, debut album Cracked Picture Frames. Its 10 songs are a potent mixture of story telling and a journey through the darker parts of love and the search for redemption, which confirms the arrival of a major new talent. Florida’s loss it seems is London’s gain, but the simple ‘have guitar, will travel’ ethos has an easy portability and these are songs that will stack up wherever and whenever they are played.
Robert acknowledges, “I grew up in Maryland, near Washington, DC. My dad played the guitar and wrote songs. There was a guitar in the house and there were scraps of paper with scribbles of verses, stuffed into drawers and between sofa cushions, so the raw ingredients were there. When I was 13 I bought the Nirvana Unplugged album, the one with the booklet where there’s a close-up of Kurt Cobain’s hand. You can clearly see him making an E shape barre chord. From there it was all downhill for me.” He continues, “Dylan and Van Zandt and so on turned me on to the idea of what I’m doing,” before acknowledging his debt to their forebears.
He moved to South Florida for work but there found a vibrant music scene telling me, “The good thing about South Florida is that anything goes. The folkies, the punks, the hip hoppers, the metal-heads and the techno junkies all hang out and make music together.” Despite his own predilection for, “Old blues and the earliest folk music on record, stuff from the dawn of recording,” he played in various bands around the scene. But then armed with a small recorder, Robert started to get more serious about his own songwriting, taking his time to learn the craft.
When the opportunity to move to London came up Robert embraced it and it was at one of the open-mic sessions that he met producer Ken Brake. The two started working together and Cracked Picture Frames resulted from sessions in Regal Lane Studios, near Regent’s Park, with the songs simply recorded in one or two takes. Robert admits, “Some of the songs on this album are a couple years old, and some were written the day before they were recorded. This is my first album, so I guess you could say they were all written with this record in mind, but ultimately we chose the best 10 that sat coherently together.”
Some of the songs play out with filmic qualities or like short stories and interestingly Robert has found an unusual source of inspiration. “There was this great DVD rental place around the corner from me on Brick Lane,” he explains, “I started to get into old foreign films, art stuff directors like Godard, Truffaut, Melville, they knew how to frame a story, and how to pace it. I started to think like a director or screenwriter, how to maintain tension, how to write from a character. That’s what this album is to me, a collection of stories.” He tempers that by admitting that some of it is also very close to home, even deeply personal.
One of the most powerful stories kicks off with the opening bluesy lick of Black Eyed Susan. It’s almost subsumed by the fug of the heavy reverb and the deeply grungy, deliberately distorted voice that becomes a haunted howl of rage and regret. It’s a dark tale of domestic violence and the black eyes the results of repeated beatings, but any hope of redemption seems to float away on Robert’s echoing lines, which seem to suggest an inevitability. Any remorse founders on self rebuke and boiling frustration, as Robert sings, “I said one of these days you know I’ll quit this for good, But did I mean the woman or did I mean the beatin’, Or did I mean the seemingly cowardly being”. Even the police, called at the start of the song are powerless, as Susan, as so often happens, remains silent. It’s a powerful opening statement and lyrically sharp, bristling with little details, the mist in the morning, the shining badges of the law enforcers, the cracks in the doorframes, holes in the walls and the weeds in the garden that have corrupted the Eden that this couple once dreamed of. It’s a withering portrayal, but one that does ask why as well as how.
If the first is a howl, the second, The Morning After, is almost an introspective mumble, again the guitar creates an unusual effect, deliberately avoiding a straight ahead strum and instead lazily following the tumbling rhythm of the words. It’s deliberately done again and enhances the confessional tone of the song, with an appropriately naturalistic bedroom intimacy. I appreciate that the word ‘confessional’, can be problematic, as it suggests something personally revealing, but that is how this sounds and again it’s the details that make it so, it’s so acutely observed. “I always hate the morning after, lipstick on the champagne glass, Your hair upon the pillow telling truth where you were lying,” Robert sings and that last phrase gains in significance as the word ‘lying’ deliciously doubles its meaning. But the ambling arrhythmic strums also enhance lines like, “And its like as if you were a pill, As if I had no force of will, To overcome regrettable temptations.”
Does You Love Pay Out It Full? continues the unlucky in love theme and interestingly Robert admits, “When I write about real life I try to be as honest as possible. I’ve been in my fair share of shitty relationships and tried to portray them accurately.” Here love is a game that can’t be won and Robert sings, “I don’t harbour any blame don’t want to hear the reasons why you quit I don’t hate the player, I don’t even hate the game I only hate the fact I fell for it.” It has that sense of stark realisation about it and easily sits alongside his heroes Townes and Dylan, with Robert sounding resigned over a simple, straight finger style guitar figure. The album keeps ringing the changes and the guitar is amped up again for the bluesy Patch It Up, which at least carries the desire to put things right. It seems, however, that the weather has changed for the worse and the leaking roof serves as a metaphor for the damage done.
Three more songs find Robert struggling with the ambivalence of relationships. He finds himself unable to say The Simplest Words, but asks, “Spare us the missing, kissing, crying, fighting, loving curse it does not suit us, I’ve got mine and you’ve got yours.” More contradictory still (I Didn’t Want Her) Anyway finds Robert still entranced as, “She got those eyes, Those dark gypsy, Eyes that sing your songs, and laugh, and burn”, but realising that the relationship is fraying at the edges. Birds And Bees, gets another unusual treatment, with what I presume to be guitar given a deliberately tinny sound, played through a small speaker and stripped of its tone, sounding more like a banjo. It gives an Appalachian feel to the song that makes the point birds can fly away, the rose has thorns and bees will sting.
Love is also at the heart of The Cyclist, but it’s infidelity and comes with a heavy price in cleverly plotted noirish tale involving an accident. Both accidents and love also feature in Corazones Amarillos, a song written after Robert visited Costa Rica, where yellow hearts are painted on roads to symbolise a fatal accident. It seems a combination of dangerous roads and reckless driving creates a fateful mixture and high mortality rate.
Closing the album is The Ballad of Edward and Lisa, a weird but true story that has more fateful cruelty. It’s a fervid mixture of religious zeal and outright weirdness, with a young boy stabbed in both eyes and left to bleed while his grandmother looks on. It seems that Robert actually knew the Lisa who inflicts the wounds and this is a grisly portrait that suggests religion can corrupt and fan the flames of troubled minds as easily as provide any notion of salvation and peace.
The characters portrayed on Cracked Picture Frames are violent, unhinged, unfaithful, but also put upon, needy and even just confused. For all of their pain, however, there is an honesty here that asks for the why of it all and perhaps if we understand that, we can find the ways to make this a better world. Lyrically its as strong as anything out there and with the simple but clever manipulation of the guitar sound manages to avoid simply falling into the obvious, adding to the tension and drama that Robert creates with his stories. Cracked Picture Frames is sharp, intelligent, thoughtful and moving, as Robert sings, “I got some simple words to say,” but he says them so well, you can’t fail to be mightily impressed.
Review by: Simon Holland
Upcoming Live Dates
05 May – The Blues Kitchen, London
14 May – Servant Jazz Quarters, London
07 Jun – The Gladstone, London,
21 Jun – Kiss the Sky, London, UK Event details
25 Jun – 28 Jun – Leigh Folk Festival 2015
03 Jul – Maverick Festival, Woodbridge,
27 Aug – The Oval Tavern, Croydon
Out Now via Jagged Lines
Order via: Bandcamp