On his third album, Roberts wrests songs of uncommon depth out of a simple indie-folk backdrop with amazing results.
There’s something refreshingly, disarmingly uncomplicated about Luke Roberts. The first indication of this on his latest album, Sunlit Cross, is the cover photo. With his winter coat, jeans and sneakers, he looks like a shy, unassuming college kid coming to your house to do odd jobs for beer money. The instrumentation and overall execution of Sunlit Cross is also deceptively simple -- acoustic-based folk with a smattering of full-band arrangements -- but the songs contain a subtle depth that show the handiwork of a gifted master.
Born and raised in Nashville, Roberts later spent time in a variety of stateside locales before moving on to Cambodia, Thailand and eventually Kenya, where most of Sunlit Cross’ songs originated. The simplicity of Kenyan life impressed Roberts and likely helped shape the naked austerity of the album. While a skillful, sympathetic group of musicians are on hand for this album (including Kyle Spence, Stephen Tanner, John Neff, Kurt Vile and Creston Spiers -- a crew who collectively make up past and present elements of Harvey Milk, Drive-By Truckers and Music Blues), Roberts opens up Sunlit Cross with the bare, tangled acoustic guitar of “Song to Remember", an eloquent pastoral number reminiscent of Neil Young, circa 1971. But the band soon joins in on “American Music", a lazy slice of alt-country that sounds like Wilco on Benadryl.
It’s Luke’s album, but the band deserves praise for adding all the right elements to the studio. “Run” skips along on a fingerpicking acoustic guitar figure, accented by sparse grand piano chords, eventually joined by brushed drums and John Neff’s aching pedal steel. Oh, that gorgeous pedal steel. Neff is arguably the session’s secret weapon here, adding just the right musical weight to Roberts’ songs, which contain an almost hymnal beauty. The leisurely country ballad “Virginia Girl” is punctuated by exquisite, otherworldly pedal steel leads that would make David Lindley proud.
“Silver Chain” is probably the one song on Sunlit Cross that will get the most exposure -- there’s a video for it, and Kurt Vile (perhaps Roberts’ most famous fan) sings backup and plays banjo on the track. It’s a fitting introduction to Roberts’ sound. “Silver sky / Jesus Christ / Already paying the cost,” Roberts sings, backed by piano, organ, and a gentle, propulsive beat.
While possessing a sound and general aesthetic that seems unabashedly indie folk, Roberts owes a great deal to early influences. Besides the aforementioned Neil Young, there are definitely traces of Nick Drake, John Prine and Townes Van Zandt present here (as well as perhaps a dash of Ryan Adams in his twangier moments). And not just in regards to the songwriting; the overall feel is a vinyl-friendly, analog vibe, from the rustic acoustic guitars to wise instrumental choices like the warm Wurlitzer keyboard that wraps around “Missing Blues” like a comfortable, familiar blanket.
Luke Roberts is a young guy with a relatively slim collection of three albums under his belt, but as Sunlit Cross proves, he’s an old soul with a depth and maturity beyond his years. I’m already itching for the next album.