[11 October 2011]
Black Crowes guitarist Rich Robinson is no stranger to the solo album game; he issued his solo debut, Paper, in 2007. Unfortunately, it received rather mixed reviews even amongst Crowes fans, who were less than taken with Robinson’s vocals and songwriting. His guitar skills have never been in dispute, but the general consensus is that Robinson needed both a real singer and a forceful editor and collaborator-something—in other words, someone like Robinson’s brother Chris, who serves that purpose in the Crowes.
It would be a shame if the bad taste from Paper overshadowed the possible reception of Through a Crooked Sun, though, because whatever its flaws, it easily demonstrates a quantum leap in Robinson’s development as a solo artist. His voice is not as expressive as his brother’s—it bears a passing resemblance to that of the Chili Peppers’ Anthony Kiedis—but it shows a surprising dexterity. What’s more, it fits the songs that Robinson has written, which, on this album, are significantly more complex and layered. It’s not a simple riff-fest, as solo albums by guitar players sometimes tend to be. Here, Robinson has developed a writing style that is indeed reminiscent of the Crowes but also encompasses levels of emotional intricacy that the Crowes, for all their power, are sometimes incapable of reaching.
Consider the album’s emotional centerpiece, “Follow You Forever”. A song inspired by Robinson’s painful divorce, it starts as a simple acoustic guitar and piano ballad but eventually grows, over nearly seven minutes, into a lush instrumental epic with slide guitars, organs, and drums. What’s significant is that this closing instrumental segment feels completely organic and integral to the song, not forced or self-indulgent. Of course, it actually takes a considerable amount of effort and planning to make something seem effortless, so Robinson deserves extra credit for seamlessly crafting music that so perfectly captures the feelings of longing, disillusionment, and heartbreak depicted in the lyrics.
It’s worth pointing out that most of Through a Crooked Sun is as melancholy and subtle as that song. This is not a hard-rock album, and only a handful of songs pack anything resembling the Crowes’ fierce wallop. Clearly, these are intensely personal songs that Robinson wrote to depict his emotional ordeal as honestly as possible. It’s why this is such a significant solo album—even at their most melodic, the Crowes are simply too brash and energetic to ever be this delicate. By stepping out of the Crowes’ comfort zone, Robinson proves that he’s more than a gifted instrumentalist. For instance, the album’s first single, “Hey Fear”, is another melodic ballad, although one that has more bite. Combining an irresistible hook with a country-folk arrangement that gives way to some fiery guitar licks, it’s a flawlessly realized composition in every respect, with the lyrics about grappling with self-doubt in the face of adversity fitting the music. Even more audacious is “I Don’t Hear the Sound of You”, which starts as a mellow country-folk ditty and then seamlessly switches over to a guitar and vibes (that’s right, vibes) jam that shouldn’t work yet somehow does.
Such boldness shows that Through a Crooked Sun is hard to dismiss as merely half a Black Crowes record. Unfortunately, here Robinson has done himself a disservice by putting the two most Crowes-like songs as the album openers. “Gone Away” sounds like a lesser rewrite of “Midnight from the Inside Out” from 2000’s Lions, and “It’s Not Easy” rehashes the lazy psychedelic boogie of 1994’s Amorica. Robinson possibly wanted to collar Crowes fans into giving his album a chance by enticing them with these soundalikes, but it’s an ill-considered strategy, since there are much stronger and more distinctive songs that he could have used to open the record. Similarly, his note-for-note cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Station Man” (originally on their 1970 album, Kiln House) isn’t going to convince any doubters who dismiss all of Robinson’s songs as mere ’70s retreads. It may have been an attempt to pay homage, but by adding nothing to the song, Robinson makes it a redundant addition to an album that doesn’t need more padding.
Nonetheless, despite these flaws, Through a Crooked Sun proves that Robinson is a solo artist worth taking seriously. Like the best solo albums, it delivers something he couldn’t have done with his day job. Moreover, at its best, it’s genuinely moving: a journey through depression and heartbreak that’s painful but never morose. Robinson’s melodies and arrangements are so elegant and understated that they don’t so much bludgeon or overwhelm you — instead, they gradually reveal themselves, making them all the more haunting. Some 20 years into his professional career, Rich Robinson shows he’s still got plenty of great music, and a few surprises, left in him.