Charlie Robison Covers Previous Ground with High Life

Charlie RobisonWhether a record comprised of entirely non-original material is terms a “covers record” or a “tribute album,” rare is the case where a consumer would pick one of these albums up before they would just as soon grab the original recordings off the store shelf, or their own record bin at home. Not that there haven’t been recent, stellar examples of these types of records, mind you. Steve Earle’s 2009 loving gem Townes is a fine album, regardless of which legend originally recorded those songs, and Earle manages to give a few of the tunes his own distinctive spin while staying respectfully true to others. But still, even in that case, who among us wouldn’t choose this year’s Townes Van Zandt collection of demos and rarities, Sunshine Boy? Ultimately, covers are fun, and there’s nothing wrong with that. In concert, they provide a prime sing-along option (See: Social Distortion’s version of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire’). On record, they can become re-imagined classics when handled appropriately (See: Johnny Cash’s cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt,”). There’s also not a darn thing wrong with it when a fantastic songwriter chooses to fill his first studio album in four years without a single tune penned by his own guitar. Charlie Robison’s High Life is the rare covers record that certainly pays tribute to its nine songs original writers and performers, but it manages to successfully come out sounding like a Charlie Robison record, regardless of the origins of the collected tunes. Similar to the love that led Earle to record Townes, Robison picked songs that had meant a great deal to him in-terms of his musical beginnings and his continued progress as one of the top touring artists in Texas. He recently told the Dallas Observer that he doesn’t consider this record a covers or tribute album, but one that he “just didn’t happen to write any songs for” and that the chosen cuts are “songs that have percolated” within him for years. Indeed he picked songs that he says made him want to get into music in the first place. While Robison’s take on Doug Sahm’s “Nuevo Laredo” is likely the most true-to-the-original cut on the album, Robison is able to own that song, as well as Ry Cooder’s “Girls From Texas,” the album’s other Tejano-powered song, thanks to his own history with including Tejano and Cojunto sounds on previous records. Again, this isn’t merely a musical masquerade. While The Band’s “Look Out Cleveland” and Bare Jr.’s “Patty McBride” are given rocking treatments that amplify the spirit of the originals, the songs written by his brother, the esteemed writer/performer Bruce Robison and his sister, Robin Ludwick, that provide Robison the greatest tools to make this album sound like one full of his own material and not a playlist off of his own iPod. Many forget that Robison’s best known-songs such as “My Hometown,” and “El Cerrito Place” are creations of his brother and Keith Gattis, respectively, not of Robison himself. In Ludwick’s waltzing, love under dim-lights number “Monte Carlo,” Robison is able to sing about love in a manner that would sound almost dumb -- and certainly sophomoric – through the filter of just about anyone else’s vocal chords. But in his well-traveled, laid-back way, Robison sings what might be the record’s most simplistically elegant line (which is saying much, given that songs written by Bob Dylan and Kinky Friedman are on the record) when he confesses that “Oh, Darlin’ I love you, like the rednecks love to fight, like a cowboy loves Saturday night.” It doesn’t happen often when an album full of cover songs proves to be a legitimate stand-alone option, but in the case of an artist such as Robison, it isn’t surprising. With a unique delivery and a dedication to interpreting the words and notes of others into his own sonic language, High Life is just another quality Robison record where skipping a song means missing out on something good. Check out my interview with Robison here and visit his web site to learn more about the artist and his music.

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We here at Twangville get to hear tons of great music. We share as much of it as we can with you and just hope that you like it as much or more than we do. On a personal note, in the past year or so, I've had a hard time getting as excited about the artists that dwell in our ever-widening arena of Twang-related performers. Not sure why it is, really. There have been some fine albums come out, but I have to say, the majority of albums that have really captured my attention this year lean far more into the rock realm than in the roots realm. As a proud Texan, I've even had a hard time finding regional artists that grab me the way in which Lone Star heroes like Robert Earl Keen, Randy Rogers or Charlie Robison have done pretty easily over the past decade. Hell, Gillian Welch's new, universally-adored album hasn't captivated me in near the manner that it has other fans and critics. Not even close, actually. Thankfully, a few recent arrivals, as well as a few future releases, have helped lure me from my existential roots funk. If you're like me and have felt as though this might be a slightly off year thus far, let these help you find your way back into the sweaty, grimey embrace of all that is Twang... HOPE FOR THE MAINSTREAM - Sunny Sweeney, Concrete ~ I'll spare you the "this is what modern pop country needs" diatribe. Top 40 country is what it is and always what it has been, most likely. The plain fact is, this album is just plain good. Great even. Adult subject matter mixed with urgent, catchy arrangements inside of songs that are all-around well-crafted gems. HOPE FOR TEXAS / RED-DIRT COUNTRY - Reckless Kelly,Good Luck & True Love ~ The vets from Austin are back. No concept, no agenda, just straight-forward Texas roots-rock that never aims to be enjoyed by only Texan frat-boys (a penchant that's become an epidemic in these parts). You'd be hard-pressed to find a more reliably solid and enjoyable band anywhere. HOPE FOR ALT-COUNTRY (OR WHATEVER) - The V-Roys, Sooner or Later AND The Old 97's, The Grand Theatre Volume II ~ While The V-Roys collection is a fine retrospective and the latest from The Old 97's is a vibrant gathering of freshly rocked tunes, both bands helped usher in what we now call "Alt-Country," and these albums prove that sometimes, you gotta just leave the heavy lifting to the big-boys. Young hipsters from Brooklyn that want to be country slackers, take note: These two records show you that navel-gazing, token Johnny Cash shout-outs and dirty t-shirts aren't substitutes for giving a damn and writing songs that people want to truly listen to every bit as much as they want to bang their head to also. HOPE FOR THE FUTURE OF ROOTS FOLK - Robert Ellis, Photographs AND Levi Lowery, I Confess I Was a Fool AND Gaston Light, Peel ~ Three young artists that traverse the broad scope of folk, roots and overall twanginess as well as anyone in their demo. Ellis whispers his songs in a sparse manner that demands the focus of the listener and reveals a maturity beyond his 22 years. Lowery, fresh off of a short stint as leader for the now-defunct Cadillac Sky takes his bluegrass chops and blends it with his own humor, vulnerability and feel for sounds that transcend simple unplugged roots tunes. Gaston Light, from Dallas, is the brainchild of 22 year-old Jason Corcoran. Where Ellis and Lowery navigate the line of folk and country, Gaston Light goes from that traditional sonic point and speeds towards a garage-rock rowdiness that never detracts from his sharp writing and keen sense for what just sounds good.