CD Review of Truth by Robben Ford

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starstarhalf starno starno star Label: Concord
Released: 2007
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This year marks Robben Ford’s 35th anniversary as a solo recording artist, a fairly momentous occasion for any musician, and one whose importance is magnified here by virtue of the simple fact that most people have no idea Robben Ford even is a recording artist, because none of his records have sold for dick.

This is not for lack of talent – Ford is a six-string phenom, and widely recognized in guitar-geek circles as one of the instrument’s preeminent talents. Matter of fact, a number of his albums have been thinly disguised guitar showcases, which sort of goes to the heart of why he’s earned such widespread acclaim as an instrumentalist, and been so thoroughly ignored everywhere else. Put bluntly: As a songwriter and vocalist, Robben Ford is a damn fine guitarist.

This is not to say he hasn’t hit the mark on a number of occasions. Though he’s a blues musician at heart, he’s been known to play the pop side of the field with aplomb; he helped found the tireless fusion collective known as the Yellowcats, and on albums such as 1988’s Talk to Your Daughter, he’s demonstrated an ability to wedge tasty, restrained solos into awfully tight spaces. He’s also capable of turning out entertaining trad-blues recordings, as his early ‘90s efforts with Tom Brechtlein and Roscoe Beck can attest. But all too often, Ford just sort of drifts; he’s released a slew of albums in the last 15 years, and most of them, solos notwithstanding, occupy the soft, wet middle ground between late-period Clapton and whoever happens to be playing at your neighborhood blues bar this weekend.

Ford’s vocals are part of the problem – he hits the notes, but without any real authority or depth of feeling. This isn’t something he can necessarily do anything about, but who Ford is as a singer and who he is as a guitarist and songwriter are often a bad match. Take, for instance, his cover of Otis Redding’s “Nobody’s Fault but Mine” – it tries to catch fire, it really does, but Ford’s thin, polite vocals keep it lodged in first gear.

On the songwriting front, Truth is a rather dreary affair, even by Ford’s limited standards; originals like “Lateral Climb” and “You’re Gonna Need a Friend” are fine excuses for typically nimble, restrained solos, but otherwise, they fall flat, and covering Paul Simon’s “One Man’s Ceiling Is Another Man’s Floor” wasn’t a very good idea. (Neither, for that matter, was writing “Riley B. King.”) At the end of the day, this is a fine disc for a barbecue, but pretty much anything by any of Ford’s influences would be better. Stick with the originals – and if you’re a Ford fan, just wait a year or two. He’s bound to release something else soon enough.

~Jeff Giles