The extravagantly named troubadour makes good on the promise of his ramshackle debut and fights his demons on an excellent sophomore album.
Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson has come a long way since the infamous “summer of fear” that became part of his lore while he was promoting his eponymous debut. For the uninitiated, here’s the cliff notes version: a few years ago, Robinson spent a summer in NYC homeless, heartbroken, and addicted to drugs. He'd just recently turned 26. It’s one of those backstories, like the winter Bon Iver spent in his dad’s cabin recording For Emma, Forever Ago, that seem to necessitate mentioning. I’m sure discussing/hearing about his tragic anecdote for the millionth time must drive Robinson into a silent rage, but it’s very helpful for context: Summer of Fear is an album of redemption songs. I mean, look at that album cover -- can we say baptism?
Like every other music critic, I am guilty of calling out bands for being too derivative of other bands. Typically speaking, the bands/artists that get deified, imitated, and/or just plain stolen from tend to have some sort of cultural cachet. Therefore, I’m not sure what to make of Robinson, who has essentially recorded a Tom Petty album. Don’t get me wrong -- there is nothing wrong with Tom Petty, or being influenced by him. I just wasn’t expecting such an overt homage from Robinson, or anyone else for that matter. Tom Petty is one of those impossible-to-hate, taken-for-granted elder statesmen of rock who has been a victim of cultural indifference for well over a decade now (not counting that whole Strokes thing).
Given that Summer of Fear is a set of anthemic, heart-on-sleeve, distinctly American rock songs, there are few models better to follow than Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers. Besides, aren’t we all getting a little sick of the plethora of bands trying to sound like the E Street Band? The album’s first single, “The Sound”, is actually one of the few diversions from all the Heartbreaking. The guitar’s stinging leads and silver curlicues are textbook Tom Verlaine, and Robinson’s vocals take on a raw, bluesy howl eerily akin to TV on the Radio’s Kyp Malone (who actually produced Summer of Fear). After hearing Robinson bellow “Why would I try to hang on to anyone else? / It’s a hard enough time trying to hang on to myself”, you know this is guy who isn’t just kicking drugs, he’s kicking himself.
Among the album’s finest moments are the two songs mostly clearly indebted to Petty & the Heartbreakers: “Trap Door” and “Always an Anchor”. I know I might be beating a dead horse here, but Summer of Fear really does function as a tribute of sorts to Petty. It’s so novel and unexpected that it’s almost laudable. Although another reference point that pops up here and there is early R.E.M. Specifically, the hard-charging “Death by Dust”, which could pass for an outtake from Reckoning with its crunchy jangle and backing vocals from someone who is apparently Mike Mills’s clone. The rousing violin-led outro smacks of Arcade Fire, and it dazzles. Rather appropriately, album closer “Boat” drifts out on languid, echo-drenched guitar lines that lap like waves against a hull. It recalls the more introspective work of Pacific Northwest deities Built to Spill and Modest Mouse, and ends the album on a powerful note.
Whenever an artist upgrades from a rough, ramshackle debut to a polished sophomore album, they run the risk of losing that initial charm that won them fans in the first place. Thankfully, Robinson avoids this pitfall despite an album spit-shined with Saddle Creek’s dollars. At the risk of sounding terribly cliche, Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson is the real thing. Whether he’s recording on four tracks or 24, his passion, grit, and authenticity punch right through. And if he happens to kickstart some sort of Tom Petty revival, I’m ready for it.