Born in Watford and raised on music, Graham Robins has been making music since the 60s without ever really registering on the national radar, although, as a member of London outfit the Soul Survivors, he did have some minor success in 1993 with a cover of Wooly Bully featuring Vinnie Jones, for which he wrote the B-side, Crazy Games. He also enjoyed a degree of success on the theatre front, writing a musical and a couple of plays, one of which was serialized on regional BBC radio. 1998 also saw the release of his solo debut album, Spirit Within, on the Luton-based 33 Records for whom he still records, followed, in 2006, by the stripped down acoustic Roll Back the Years.
Although warmly received by his fan base, neither did much to boost his wide profile in the UK. However, the release of The Shipping News, in 2011, finally brought wider attention, accruing positive national and online reviews for his Van Morrison-esque Celtic and Atlantic soul. An official follow-up is planned for later in the year, but in the meanwhile Parish Papers & Short Stories is a collection of past material, enhanced, tweaked, remixed or recorded. Not that any of it sounds remotely dated and it again serves to underline comparisons to the vintage days of Van the Man as well as shades of Sam Cooke and, on Hold On To The Light (a co-write with former fellow Soul Survivor sax player Paul Devonshire), I would also venture to suggest late 60s/early 70s Tom Jones.
Although Robins notes that these songs are taken from the archives, only two have ever been previously released, Lonely Heart and Elysium Fields both appearing on his debut. The remixed former is a terrific Celtic soul ballad featuring just Robins accompanied by Devonshire on horns and Mike Adcock on keyboards while the latter (one of several numbers underscoring Robins’ literate background), again featuring Adcock as well as a string trio, has gospel undertones, musically and lyrically, informed by early years singing in church choirs and would have sounded totally at home on Moondance.
There’s shades of an even earlier Morrison on organ accompanied album opener, Parish Papers, which, despite the lost love lyrics, is an uptempo toe-tapping number in the spirit of Brown Eyed Girl, complete with swinging horns and a sha la la de da chorus. It’s also one of two numbers to mention the EuroTrain, a nod to the fact Robins has a sizeable following across the channel. Indeed, as well as mentioning Dublin, Martine (a restless musician’s soul blues song with reverb guitar and accordion about missing the woman back home while also needing to find escape that’s also veined with hints of a troubled relationship with his friends Jack, Jim and Mr. Jameson) talks about taking a trip to Brussels.
Prior to this comes the lyrically hopeful, redemptive Starting Over Again, a solid rolling mid-tempo country soul featuring backing vocals Lee Devine and Sue Gray while its American notes surface to even stronger effect on the brassy Memphis soul feelgood swing of Walking In The Footsteps Of A Soul Man which references, directly or obliquely, Cooke, Arthur Conley, Curtis Mayfield and Smokey Robinson and is most definitely one to have blaring out loud from the car stereo on a sunny day.
He stays down south for Going Down To Georgia, a slow burn soul ballad that name-checks Otis (and, by implication, nods to Ray Charles) and has a groove reminiscent of Crazy Love, then comes the bluesier, steady paced groove of Strong with Richard Symonds on organ, Devonshire on sax and some solid Gary Moore-ish blues guitar from James Litherland and a lyric that talks of recovering from adversity but which, given some of the imagery, could, in parts, also be given a Biblical second coming reading.
The album ends with the year’s second reference (the other being from Thea Gilmore) to the phrase Crossing the Rubicon, here also as the song title, a rolling melody soul swayer that’s both about reaching out and not giving up (“I won’t stop till the work gets done”) that slips in a reference to Judy Garland the Wizard of Oz and fades away far too soon.
The songs here may have been gathering dust, but, brought out into the light, they have produced a hugely listenable and enjoyable album, a perfect soulful accompaniment to summer and further evidence of Robins’ fabulous voice and huge talent. It’s already on my list of 2015’s Top 10 releases and, if the new one does appear come the autumn, he could well make it a double.
Review by: Mike Davies
Out Now via 33 Records
Order it here: http://www.globalsessions.co.uk/shop.php