An indifferent set from NC acoustic-music stalwart.
North Carolina native Justin Robinson first made a splash as part of the old-timey outfit the Carolina Chocolate Drops, whose 2010 Genuine Negro Jig won a Grammy Award for Best Traditional Folk Recording. But the restless Robinson was unwilling to remain constrained by traditional stylings for long, and it was only a matter of time -- and not much time at that -- before he struck off on his own. Bones for Tinder is the full-length debut of his new band, Justin Robinson and the Mary Annettes.
A variety of approaches are on display here. Songs range in tone from the folky strum of album opener "Neptune" to the bluesy stomp of "Devil's Teeth" to the heartfelt earnestness of "Nemesis or Me." Most of the instrumentation is acoustic, with Robinson's voice serving as the glue that binds together these different moods. It's not a particularly powerful instrument, though it possesses a winning wistfulness, not to mention the unvarnished quality prevalent in so much indie rock these days. To the extent that the songs succeed, they do so in spite of the vocals, not because of them. In fact, one of the most effectively atmospheric bits on this album is the 69-second "III Lil Babes," an instrumental workout. Significant? You decide.
"Neptune" is fairly dull as far as album openers go, with its watery melody and busy-but-homogenous instrumentation, but it's offset nicely by follow-up "Bright Diamonds." This is one of the stronger tunes on the album, with its urgent rhythms and pulsing fiddles, not to mention the unexpected and somewhat disorienting background vocals, delivered in jarring spitfire staccato: "Petticoats and crinolines, theramins and violins -- uh huh." Make of that what you will, gentle listener.
Banjo and fiddle are recurring presences throughout the record, with most tunes featuring plenty of both. "Devil’s Teeth" is a satisfying tune, its shuffling proto-blues offset nicely by a wailing fiddle line. "Butcher Bird" is far less successful, placing emphasis on Robinson's voice, which isn't entirely up to the task. Ditto "Nemesis or Me". In fact, the back half of the record is weak, with throwaway tunes like "Ships and Verses" and "Thank You, Mr Wright" attempting humor, with dire results.
"Vultures" is far more successful, a late-album midtempo stomper that trundles along with a degree of verve and energy missing from the rest of the proceedings. It's a very good song, maybe even a great one. The listener is grateful, but one song, however great, isn't enough to lift the record out of its morass all by itself. Soon we're back in low-energy territory with the dirgelike "Kissin and Cussin," which aims for low-key intensity but manages only the low-key part. "The Phil Spectors" rocks out a little better courtesy of some thumping percussion, but otherwise just kind of sits there.
Bones for Tinder is -- get ready for it -- interesting rather than enjoyable, worthy rather than engaging. Fans of Robinson's previous work will probably be curious, but despite the unusual instrumentation and competent musicianship, the tunes here just aren't strong enough -- nor are the vocals -- to elevate this material from "Huh, that's sort of interesting" to "Hey everybody, listen to this!"