Chris Robley & The Fear Of Heights: ‘My Life In Film Festivals (Haiku #1)’
NPR.org,Â February 2, 2009 -Â Aptly named, Chris Robley’s third solo LP,Â Movie Theatre Haiku, swirls together dark, evocative instrumentation and poetic lyrics. Quirky track names and the album’s long subtitle, “a Masque of Backwards Ballads, a Picturesque Burlesque,” provide only a hint of the complexities and eccentricities of the album’s many layers. But there’s plenty of surprises to keep you guessing and wanting more.
Dark, romantic strains take flight, thanks to the addition of the backing band, The Fear of Heights, which adds a host of instruments â€” including the dulcimer, trumpet, clarinet, flute, saxophone, and violin â€” to Robley’s already robust and full-bodied instrumental lineup. But, Robley and his band don’t stop at traditional instruments. “The Late, Great Age of Paper” also includes synthesizers and electronica elements, offering a nice kick and a modern twist.
Traces of inventive and whimsical bands like The Decemberists and recent Second Stage artist, PT Walkley, may jump out of Portland’s Chris Robley and The Fear of Heights. But this gothic, orchestral indie-pop is sure to leave heads spinning with its unique and haunting sound.
Sunday, December 28, 2008 At 10:51PM
Just reading about Chris Robley – on his Myspace page, in reviews – is enough to make your head explode.
Brains like his must be a serious liability, and I imagine this small guy of prodigious talent has managed to pull off some at-least-mischevious acts in his years. All I can say is thank goodness for the general public that Chris Robley’s putting his devilishly clever mind and his bottomless energetic creativity to writing fascinating musical novelettes.
Touring with his Fear of Heights band from Portland, Oregon, Chris Robley visited Chessvolt Studios to record a collection of jazzy-country-rock-indie-moulin rougey narratives for his Luxury Wafers Live Session.
Robley blends intriguing, generally dark lyrics and crisp arrangements in perfect proportions. The soundscape is built like a well-rounded country, with ups and downs, ins and outs that keep the subconscious exploring, while Chris’ smooth and listenable voice leads the journey. Though the personalities of his songs differ widely, the net result is consistently a themed musical setting fleshed out with lush instrumentation. Chris Robley, unapologetic, unselfconscious rock star, and his 6-piece band of top musicians (including viola, pianette, and trumpet) craft living stories. The tales are spun, but he’s so connected and the band is so locked in you feel interjected in the scene.
Centauria smacks of gypsy folk tale. My new-school ear keeps expecting a Gogol Bordello style throwdown. Instead, it continues along, theatrical with a dose of Leonard Cohen, sorrowful strings, horn and howling vocals which drive you to gather dried planks from the nearby picked-over forest to toss as fuel into the meager fire burning in the slender cylinder standing atop the bare dirt in the center of town….
The fun harmonies and upbeat vibe of Faukland Islands transport the listener back to a warm party at the beach among friends, full of charm, looking good and feeling better.
Moving on to Faulkners South, there’s certain danger of becoming drenched in a murky, dreary reflective predicament.
A bip-bop David Bowie mode follows in Little Love Affairs.
The Love I Fake comes off sleazy-jazzy, tiptoing around a cabaret ’till the punch comes with a super catchy pop refrain, the empowered cry out of a girl on top of her game, so to speak, disdainfully mocking her clients. Yep, it is a prostitute song. Check out the neat sounds that come out of their throats at the end in addition to the embellishment of grunts. Unbeatably wheedling lyrics: “I wish I could feel the love I fake, I wish you could see the faces you make.”
Memory Lost at Sea feels like a spy thriller that takes place down at the docks.
The vibrant energy, pianette, funky rhythm, wierd Freddie Mercury-ish-ness and groovy repetitive riff of My Life in Film Festivals makes for an addictively synesthetic experience you can taste and feel.
Finally, buckle up for a wacky horn-infused ride with Scooby Doo in the Mystery Machine in User Friendly Guide to Change, a number that’ll make you want to get down in a psychedelic way with Shaggy, Velma and your buddy Austin Powers, too, “…like a flower bends toward the memory of the sun…” It’s super energetic, yeah man. Quincy Jones would be proud. Also, it’s more than a deja vu or short-term memory loss – you really have heard the song before: it’s the intro the CD Baby podcast.
Listen to the tracks (option/click to download):
Check out Chris Robley on Myspace
Photos from the Live Session.
Amplifier magazine had me pick some favorite songs last year. Hear goes…
Joe Henry – â€œOur Songâ€ (Civilians)
The greatest lyrics I heard all year, the kind where you can’t tell if they arrived fully formed in a flash of genius, or if they were painstakingly carved out of stone over the course of a lifetime. Personal, patriotic, barely-polemical, deeply wounded, defiantly hopeful. I don’t need to include a Randy Newman song on this mix tape now because Joe Henry’s song is so clearly influenced by Newman’s brilliant, cynical-optimist tone. It makes me want to cry. Only someone who truly loves his country could sound this disgusted and heartbroken.
Animal Collective – â€œWho Could Win a Rabbitâ€ (Sung Tongs)
By contrast; I find it hard to imagine these lyrics mean anything at all. But that is OK. When these guys get down to the business of writing actual songs, they’re hard to ignore. This particular track makes me curious about the personalities of the band. It conjures the image of a gaggle of mad children frolicking free in some hidden, government-funded, Technicolor romper room. As they dance and sing, plastic flowers grow in the wake of their movements. Giddy and menacing at the same time.
Nilsson – â€œMiss Butter’s Lamentâ€ (Aerial Pandemonium Ballet)
Lately I’ve been obsessing over the dulcet tones of syrupy orchestral pop as well as the dark clank and clamor of junkyard Americana. Nilsson Vs. Tom Waits. For this mix, the former wins out, and probably always will. Virtuoso vocals, the hopeless arc of some sad Victorian tale, awesome rhythmic tension; but never taking itself too seriously, either. This a major compositional achievement, and I think in the end it was only included as a “bonus track”. That is how good Nilsson was. Bastard!
Rachel Taylor Brown – â€œOrmoluâ€ (Ormolu)
A song about a fake golden baby from the perspective of a strained and ambivalent mother. Creepy, but entirely human. This whole album reminds me of PJ Harvey’s beautiful “White Chalk,” but with better lyrics and a more sophisticated use of chords and dissonance. Ormolu is a sparse and haunting “piano ballad” (though itâ€™s really more like Lieder) with tonality stretched to the Pop limits. And then there is that one crescendo of wailing vocals towards the end! Damn. Like if a Scottish Banshee took voice lessons from a Gospel singer.
The Kinks – â€œThe Way Love Used to Beâ€ (The Great Lost Kinks)
I love this one because it seems so uncharacteristically Kinks. Itâ€™s more like a Paul McCartney song about nostalgia and regret, but with Ray Davies’ earnest vocals. The string arrangement is amazing, too. Not sure who scored it or who produced the session as a whole but this song demonstrates the craft and care I wish the Kinks employed with all their material. Another tear jerker.
TV on the Radio – â€œI Was a Loverâ€ (Return to Cookie Mountain)
Don’t know if those are distorted trombones in the beginning, but I’m jealous as hell of whatever kind of thing created such a cacophony. I love how these guys manipulate sound and tension, but stay focused on melody and form at the same time. Pretty kick ass beats, too. They never condescend to the listener, and when the melody at the end rides atop an ambiguous flood of noise, the band is certain you’re not lost, but floating along with them. TV on the Radio and Battles need to release an officially sanctioned mash-up album.
Thelonious Monk – â€œBlue Monkâ€ (Monk’s Blues)
Once upon a time there was a musical element called “melody” and T. Monk was the king of its domain. I love that he was a Jazz guy who favored the tune above all else; above solos, feel, even skill. His use of chromaticism and syncopation is still unmatched. He was like America’s Wagner, and only slightly more likeable a guy from what I’ve read. His “sloppy,” angular piano style was pretty rad, too. He and Marc Ribot would have made a good pair.
Emerson, Lake & Palmer – â€œTaste of My Loveâ€ (Love Beach)
My friend Jeff put this song on a tour-mix he made for the Fear of Heights. He added the disclaimer that â€œTaste of My Loveâ€ is, hands down, the single worst Rock song of ALL time. His estimations did not disappoint. This colossally desperate mistake in musical history is filled with so many horrid audio assaults that your ears tingle with pleasure. Laughter soon follows. But unfortunately, the laughter will cause you to miss the next tasteless moment of classless come-ons. The lyrics border on sexual harassment.
Here is a sampling:
Call up room service, order peaches and cream
I like my desert first – if you know what I mean.
Yeah, taste it, taste it, taste it.
Take all you need from the taste of my love.
To be fair, this was their last album and they made it simply to fill their contractual obligation. But still, at that point, why even bother rhyming?
Daft Punk – â€œDigital Loveâ€ (Discovery)
My friend Dave introduced this song to me, saying that it has THE best synth solo of all time. He was correct. Itâ€™s so over the top and fun that you wonder how much further they can take it. And, of course, further it goes. This whole album guarantees a smile. The Keytar lives! Plus, that video with the hands is pretty sweet.
John Vanderslice – â€œLunar Landscapesâ€ (Cellar Door)
Out of all the albums I’ve heard since the new millennium, I’ve listened toÂ Cellar DoorÂ the most. Vanderslice is a really creative, terse arranger. His characters are always vivid and untrustworthy. His voice is always distressed. I like the song “Pale Horse” best, but â€œLunar Landscapesâ€ is a far better mix tape conclusion. Itâ€™s a soothing, melancholy lullaby, sung to a horse that is about to be put down. Its sound matches the lyric so fittingly that you can feel the gray shroud of sleep closing in from all around. Itâ€™s not frightening. Itâ€™s warm and full of love.
The new album is finally finished. It’s called “Movie Theatre Haiku” Â and it’s a collection of songs about measuring distances. The official release is in late March, but you can pick up a copy now by clicking here. Also, we’ve gotten some great advance press from local papers like the Portland Mercury, the Willamette Week, and the Oregonian.
Also, keep an ear out. “User-Friendly Guide” from the upcoming album has been serving as the theme song for the CD Baby DIY Musician Podcast. I’ve also contributed a brand new song to the compiliation (D)early Departed: True Lies in Song Unearthed from Lone Fir. Portland artists such as Storm Large, Ritchie Young, Nick Jaina, Pete Krebs, and mony others each wrote a tune about a real live dead person buried in the historic Lone Fir cemetery. It was a blast. My tune was about Capt. Jim Turk, a scoundrel and crime lord who introduced the practice of crimping to Oregon and even Shanghaied his own son. A live recording of “The Love I Fake” from Drunken Dance was included on Mississippi Studios Live: volume III alongside songs by the Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs, Kristin Hersh of Throwing Muses, the Everybodfields, and Weinland. Lastly, whenever you see an AMC commercial for a horror movie, listen closely for my song “Mantra of a Melting American” (from this is the) playing in the background. Boo!
Planning a Spring tour now. Stay tuned.