Thursday, March 21, 2019

album review: 'traveling mercies' by emily scott robinson

So I'll admit this came out of nowhere for me.

And I think that's somewhat important to call out, because everyone loves to say they're ahead of the curve and they found an act from the indie scene that nobody's ever heard of, and while you might get the occasional quote from more traditional outlets, you can quickly tell by traction in other lanes how much people really know about you. But I'll freely admit that wasn't really aware of North Carolina's Emily Scott Robinson from any outlet before recently: I saw the rave review for her newest project from Saving Country Music, I got curious knowing exactly rare said reviews are, and I figured I'd check out her debut to get some perspective...

And I was left blown away. Yes, 2016's Magnolia Queen is very much a spare and acoustic affair, a little rough around the edges both in playing and her vocal delivery - although she does have a great voice - what astonished me was the songwriting. In terms of structured poetry, detail, and nuance to craft vivid and often heartwrenching stories, the closest immediate comparison I made was Lori McKenna - and that's not a comparison I make lightly. And it's not a straightforward imitation either - Robinson's writing is rougher and a lot darker, not flinching away from the small town failures and vices that can consume both her protagonists and their hapless partners - age hasn't sanded back or refined her edges, and considering the dark, challenging moments have always what I've liked the most from McKenna, this spoke volumes. In other words, when I heard that the album this year was more refined and polished - handily making its Kickstarter goal, I should add - I had the feeling we could be in for one of the best country projects of 2019, so what did we get from Traveling Mercies?

Okay, let me get this out of the way now: if you're looking for a bandwagon in country and Americana to get onboard yesterday, Emily Scott Robinson is absolutely the one, and if Magnolia Queen was the first shot, Traveling Mercies is the full-bodied chaser that catches you off-guard with its richness and burns all the way down. Without a question this will be one of the best albums of 2019 and the sort of project that absolutely clinches Emily Scott Robinson as a star to watch - or to put it another way, this is the sort of project that's so shocking in its potency and power that I was struggling to find things to criticize, the same sort of feeling I got when I reviewed Kacey Musgraves' Same Trailer, Different Park, or even Dave Cobb's Southern Family. Yeah, that's what we're dealing with here, folks.

And what's kind of magical about this project is how comfortably it can fit in this territory, and a huge part of this is Emily Scott Robinson's delivery: strident, clear, a hint of a husky yodeling tone, but capable of devastating quiet moments and subtlety that allows the simplest turns of phrase to utterly devastate. I made the Lori McKenna comparison when it comes to writing, but the vocal comparison is closer to Kacey Musgraves... but even then, where Musgraves tends to slide towards traditional country kitsch and artifice, Robinson is the pivot to windswept loneliness, deep-seated heartache, and the sort of emotive vulnerability that avoids the gauze and wrappings to let it bleed freely. Now that's not saying there aren't brighter moments - 'Better With Time' is the sort of well-matured love song that's incredibly endearing, the wry but exasperated 'White Hot Country Mess' cuts but does so with an eye to being better, and the album ends with the warm and willing death of an old patriarch with 'Overalls' and the more traditional progression of the closing title track. Hell, if I were to muster any criticisms here, they come in how her higher register can feel a shade thin on 'White Hot Country Mess' and that the title track feels a bit underwhelming and underwritten to close out the album, even with the richer backing vocals, and if I didn't place so much personal emphasis on how albums close, it'd be a flimsy nitpick indeed.

But a major factor of this comes through in production and instrumentation as well, where Robinson did exactly what she should have coming off of her debut to expand and refine her sound while still maintaining a rich organic tone. But I'd argue it goes even further than this: just the expansion of her backing team would be one thing, but a common criticism of her peers in this lane is that the albums can be a little too restrained or monochromatic, with really good tones but not a lot of variation, or a tendency to default to a sleepier sound that can be enticing but demands a more patience - both Courtney Patton and Karen Jonas have been nailed with this, and while I like both of them, it's not an unfair criticism. Whereas Emily Scott Robinson uses her backing team with bass, live drums, touches of electric guitar and a great warm fiddle pickup as an excuse to push her sound further while not succumbing to the vintage Nashville tone that Dave Cobb has been working. Take that supple bass melody and patter of low drums that opens 'Westward Bound' with gentle pealing touches that builds even more of a gallop as the bridge comes through - just in terms of establishing momentum and setting the stage, it's a potent moment, and shows a commitment to setting atmosphere that's consistent throughout. The spiky sizzles of guitar sitting deep behind the acoustic lead on 'Ghost in Every Town', the wheezing touches of distant guitar on 'Delta Line', how much the subtle swells of bassy melody and organ lend so much to the loneliness of 'Borrowed Rooms and Old Wood Floors' - one of the few cases where isolating the vocals with just enough reverb is perfect rather than overplayed - and then there's how 'The Dress' centers the vocals ahead of the acoustic guitar and bass in a way where despite every hint of atmosphere, you can't avoid the uncomfortable intimacy of Robinson's delivery, which is one reason it hits like a sledgehammer to the stomach. And I have to highlight great sequencing here as well: a song like 'The Dress' could be impossible to follow - despite its relatively short length, its power could easily overshadow the rest of the album - which is why Emily Scott Robinson swings biggest in her composition on the following song 'Shoshone Rose', a song that leans heavily on the sweeping desert atmosphere with wailing strings, sandy percussion, ponderous bass, and galloping acoustics, and that's before you even get to the content! But just as much as that song could overshadow things in a very different way, she pulls back for the bare acoustics of 'Run' for another stark, lonely progression that she again knocks out of the park - a little more of a familiar wheelhouse coming from Magnolia Queen, but no less devastating.

But for as much as I'll praise the production and tone of this project, if you're coming to an Emily Scott Robinson project you should be coming for the songwriting... and while the easy way to end this review right now would just to be recite the lyrics that hit like a  steam train, what I want to highlight are the complexities, subtleties, and thematic cohesion that makes the storytelling of this project so damn potent. For one, you'd be forgiven for thinking there isn't a larger arc to this project - Robinson's wonderful grasp on human frailty and deep-seated empathy means she's got a natural knack for writing about people but it could feel like more disconnected moments than a cohesive project - but the travelogue established on 'Westward Bound' serves to both serve as a loose framing device structurally and emotionally. And while she'll take the first person narrative to tell some of those stories herself - you do get more autobiographical cuts like 'Borrowed Rooms and Old Wood Floors' and 'White Hot Country Mess' that reestablish the troubadour spirit of this project and keep the momentum moving, in the former case the lonely couch-surfing that drives her passion and the latter to playfully but handily highlighting just what it's like being a woman in modern Americana. And I can't stress how much that subtle sense of momentum is key to why so many of these songs work, even a settled love song like 'Better With Time' highlights how that starter home for the young couple has been left behind to strive and move forward, and if you pay attention between the lines you'll notice how if the momentum stalls or falters, the fate becomes darker. 'Ghost In Every Town' highlights the fading and oft-forgotten routine of men trapped at the bottom with nobody to care for them, and 'Pie Song' is damn near a tragedy where for all of the protagonist's domestic effort, it feels for naught when her partner has fallen out of love with her. But Robinson's wise enough to not frame every escape to the road as the easy answer, even if it might be the right one, from the heartbreaking systematic breakdown of rural families on 'Delta Line' to the lonely midnight flight away from an abusive relationship on 'Run', where it's abundantly clear there is still some love there, but some breaks can't be fixed. And this album doesn't pull away from showing that trauma, often between the lines but more often with an unflinching bluntness that hits hard, with 'The Dress' being one of the most heartbreaking stories of the mental and emotional recovery from sexual assault I've ever seen in music, all of it delivered without a wasted word. But there are moments of light that keep that sense of movement, from the vivid Native American revenge story of 'Shoshone Rose' to even the settled passing of 'Overalls', telling the story of an old veteran who's lived a full life after the war and is ready to make that last journey home, reminiscent not so much of Jason Isbell's 'Elephant' and more of Frank Turner's 'Long Live The Queen' - again, the comparisons speak for themselves! Even the title track functions as an effective coda - again, lacking a little more meat to truly drive it home for me, but absolutely the right way to end this project.

Folks... I dunno what to tell you, when this came into my orbit I was expecting to give this a passing review whenever time allowed - I checked out her debut on a whim because I had some spare moments running errands, I wasn't prepared to make this a priority. But Traveling Mercies deserves to be a priority: a stunning indie country project that is beautifully produced, wonderfully delivered, and features some of the best songwriting you will hear this year. This is an album I want to own on vinyl, that shows its subtle presence through warmth, striking personality, and a sense of intuitive empathy that places Emily Scott Robinson in a weight class that defies her age and deserves so much more attention. In other words, I'm thinking a strong 9/10 and the highest of recommendations - again, you all need to hear this yesterday, and right now this is the album to beat in 2019. Go find it however you can - it's absolutely worth it.

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