The Drunken Dance of
Modern Man in Love
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Reviewed by Michael Fortes
So goes the aptly titled “Culture Jammer,” the first full vocal tune following a brief instrumental intro on the latest album by Chris Robley. This Portland-by-way-of-Rhode Island singer-songwriter offers up a dozen offerings, instrumentals, stories and such on The Drunken Dance of Modern Man in Love. He delivers these assorted nuggets with an almost-whisper of a voice that’s awfully reminiscent of the late Elliott Smith, though never, ever as mopey as Robley’s lauded forbear.
And when it comes to the music, he takes the kitchen sink approach – just take a look at the variety of instruments Robley alone is credited with playing: guitars, wurlitzer, piano, harmonica, banjo, vibraphone, broken glass… the list goes on. But this is no mere “solo” outing. Granted, he’s not backed by his band the Fear of Heights, but he’s got support from nine others (including Fear of Heights drummer John Stewart and bassist Arthur Parker), playing everything from trumpet, sax and clarinet to drums, fiddle and pedal steel.
And yet, with all these various instruments adding to the sonic stew, it’s ultimately the acoustic guitar that stands out as the anchor here. It strums away in “A Vague Notion of Nothing Much,” perhaps the catchiest and least depressing song ever written about an unwanted pregnancy, and in “Little Love Affairs” (“Is it unfaithful… if the only cheating was in my mind?” – good question! I say no. What about you?), with some deft picking in “Centaurea” and the instrumental “Gaslight Girl.”
And then, in “The Love I Fake,” sung from the perspective of a prostitute, a jazzy swing creeps in, aided by some honky-tonk piano and accordion. When the horns and drums enter, along with some clarinet, the effect is that of New Orleans jazz rubbing elbows with indie rock, in the best possible sense that description entails.
Melodic without being precious or over-the-top, sonically eclectic without being disjointed, Drunken Dance plays like a series of intelligent novellas-as-pop-songs. Its pleasures and intrigues are many, and very refreshing – meaning it’s probably not going to be 2007’s big multi-platinum surprise hit. Nevertheless, as Robley keeps touring and getting his name out, this album is bound to become a fan favorite.