[24 May 2011]
Deep Dark Robot is a duo consisting of drummer Tony Tornay and singer/songwriter/guitarist/producer/everything else Linda Perry. Maybe, like me, you’ve heard the name Linda Perry before, but aren’t sure where. The press materials mention that she owns the Custard Records label, which includes acts like James Blunt and Bigelf, and that she’s “one of the most sought after names in the music business”. It wasn’t until I looked her up that everything about Deep Dark Robot clicked into place. Perry was the lead singer for early ‘90s one-hit wonder 4 Non Blondes, and her distinctive, affected vocals on “What’s Up?” are probably running through your head right now if you’re in the right age group.
Perry, it turns out, broke up 4 Non Blondes and released a couple of critically acclaimed but commercially inert solo albums in the late ‘90s before sliding into production and songwriting in the ‘00s. She’s worked with a long list of pop stars, most notably Pink and Christina Aguilera, all while putting her own career on the back-burner. So Deep Dark Robot is Perry’s return to writing and performing material for herself. And 8 Songs About a Girl is literally eight songs about a girl, a chance for Perry to vent vociferously and, one hopes, cathartically, about a relationship gone bad.
Despite the band name, there is nothing electronic about Deep Dark Robot. These songs are mostly gritty blues-rock, with Perry’s voice right out in front at all times. A lot of how well 8 Songs About a Girl works depends on what you think of Perry as a vocalist. On the one hand, she’s a versatile singer who uses several distinct vocal styles over the course of these eight songs. But on the other hand, it feels like she’s really pushing her voice on some songs and it comes off sounding disingenuous. For an album that’s ostensibly a very personal account of real-life events, that disingenuity is a credibility-killer. Album opener “I’m Coming for You” finds Perry in a bluesy croon that grows into a howl, while the gentle “You Mean Nothing to Me” has her singing in a hushed, pretty voice. Then there’s a song like “Can’t Get You Out of My Mind,” which sounds like Perry attempting her best Eddie Vedder impersonation and failing badly. It continues on like this throughout the album, with Perry trying on a different vocal approach for nearly every track.
The other issue with 8 Songs About a Girl is that there’s no flow to the album at all. Rather than being a song cycle that follows the arc of the relationship, the songs seem to be thrown together slapdash, without regard to time-line or musical style. The whole thing feels very of the moment and a bit schizophrenic, as if we’re getting a peek into Perry’s emotional turmoil as she sorts out the situation. As an album, though, this leads to situations such as the hard-charging opener “I’m Coming for You” followed immediately by the melancholy torch song “No One Wakes Me Up Like You”. The torch song ends with a good 90 seconds left in the track, and those 90 seconds are filled by a ham-fisted, distorted punk (why not make it a separate track and call the album 9 Songs About a Girl? ). Later on, the regretful, overly dramatic “It Fucking Hurts”, clearly near the end of the relationship, slams right into the hard-rocking “Won’t You Be My Girl?”, where Perry sings about how attracted she is to the girl despite the girl’s bad reputation.
The result is that the album ends up feeling like a big mess. This may very well be exactly what Perry wants, but in my estimation the tracking choices hurt the record. These songs clearly come packed with Perry’s emotional baggage, but that baggage hasn’t necessarily translated into good songs. Most of these tracks are solid, but not great, and they often lack strong hooks. This is surprising considering Perry’s last decade as a pop producer and songwriter, but there’s at least an even chance she wants to distance herself from that material. Regardless of whether Deep Dark Robot has intentionally traded pop hooks for half-baked blues riffs, 8 Songs About a Girl doesn’t work nearly as well as it should. This is a middling debut that smacks of squandered potential.