[1 March 2011]
PopMatters Associate Events Editor
With scratched vocals that sound as if he’s screamed his way through hell, Bobby Long sings A Winter Tale like it’s his last chance. In reality, it’s one of his first chances, but the desperation in his tone leads me to believe he’s onto something. From the moment that the opening acoustic guitar breaks into distortion on the album’s title track, and his heavy voice cuts through, it is clear that he wants to say something important.
If you don’t know Bobby Long, you’re not alone. It was only last year that he was signed to ATO Records, and only this February that his first major label release was issued. Before that, Long struggled his way into the London music scene, living off of student loans and playing the club circuit. His first taste of fame came when a song he co-wrote, “Let Me Sign”, was placed on the Twilight soundtrack. In 2009, Long played 160 shows in seven countries in just seven months. During that time he sold 10,000 copies of Dirty Pond Songs, an EP which is exclusively available at his shows. Despite that impressive backstory, A Winter Tale is Long’s true introduction, or at least the one that might help us remember his name. Today, perhaps thankfully, he practically dismisses his first brush with fame and the song that put him there in past tense, not much more than a lucky first step. He is focused on the future; writing and playing songs.
A Winter Tale begins with the title track, a poetic verse sung over heavily-distorted, sustained guitar chords. Long’s Southwestern English accent is distinct from the first line, a characteristic trait, similar to The Streets, that we are not denied as we are with many other British artists. It’s on the second track, though, that we get a true taste for the kind of songwriter Bobby Long is. For all its poetic imagery, the most powerful moments in “Who Have You Been Loving” come through the countless repetitions of the song’s title, and a later refrain that simply proclaims, “If you’re no better now than you’ll ever be, you owe me an apology.” This is also this track that will surely drown us in near-constant radio play.
Other tracks on the album are showcases of a prowess and finesse on guitar, “The Bounty of Mary Jane”, “Sick Man Blues” and “Two Years Old”, in particular. Meanwhile “Penance Fire Blues” and “Dead and Done” are calculated, rhythmic tunes musically reminiscent of—dare I say it—Neil Young and Bob Dylan, while remaining lyrically reflective of Long’s surrounding social and familial trends.
Unfortunately for Bobby Long, today’s climate accepts most singer-songwriters as pretty boys more than musicians, and he falls dangerously within the reach of this category. His songs, though poetic and poignant, are also doomed to constant airplay thanks to their familiarity. Of course, that may be his goal, and if so, the more power to him. However, if this man-as-musician is not careful, he may find himself desperately digging out of the hole caused by rugged glamor, and trying to prove that his musical talent outweighs his physical presence.