Hell, it’s not all that much to ask. The protagonist of Mylow, the first solo release from Backsliders co-founder Chip Robinson, just wants to get home. But as this collection of vividly detailed songs makes clear, it can be tough to find your way. Maybe it’s the side-quest for another golden metaphor to sit alongside Robinson’s all-time great, “You’re fading slow like a bloodstain on my sleeve” (unleashed on “Abe Lincoln,” the standout cut on the Backsliders’ swan song, Southern Lines). This time out, that pursuit leads to clever comparisons involving mean left hooks and Memphis trains, both of which can knock a person off course. Or maybe it’s the hand of God placing angels and saints, punk prophets and a modern-day Lazarus in his path, a trail damp with dirty holy water. Beyond divine interference, there are the ashes of burned photos and bonfired bridges stinging his eyes while he sidesteps the wreckage of busted marriages and navigates the beautiful mess of other arrangements and estrangements.
Above all else, it might be the realization that the heart sure is a faulty compass. It can point too far north: “Come on, baby, I put you way up too high for me,” Robinson offers on Ronnie Lane’s post-Faces single “Kuschty Rye,” an inspired cover choice delivered spiritedly. Or it points in too many directions, as on the hushed, confessional “Fence.” (“When I fell in love with you/ It pissed off my wife and my girlfriend too.”) It’s a credit to Robinson’s skills as a writer and performer that you nod in appreciation at that line, even while acknowledging that betrayal is nothing worth applauding.
Go ahead and give the sounds on Mylow a standing ovation, though: The record positions Robinson as Tom Waits’ nephew, courtesy of the artful clang of the opening “Preface,” and Dan Penn’s country-soul son on the southern stroll “Closer to the Light.” Or he’s Malcolm Holcombe’s brother on “Story,” and just by hanging on, he’s a rumpled pop to any number of youngsters still death-gripping the roots-rock blueprint. At one sonic end are “Wings” and “A Prayer Please,” with understated but tuneful accompaniment from fellow old pros such as Georgia Satellite/ Yayhoo Keith Christopher and producer/ ex-Del Lord/ current Yayhoo Eric Ambel. They build the perfect framework for Robinson’s last call of a voice. And at the other, cranked-up end are “Beesting” and the title track, two supreme rockers that dial things back to the Triangle’s alt-country heyday with supple, snaky guitars wrapped like barbed wire around a big beat that could be echoing from former twank-rock epicenter The Brewery.
Across the overlapping memories and through the storms and revitalizing calms, there’s the suggestion that home might not be a place but perhaps a person: the recurring Elizabeth. After all, she’s the one driving the title track’s plea to “just keep all those Brooklyn boys out of your mama’s room.” And what if this reformed wanderer does make it home, chin up, with bridges rebuilt and mojo help from a train-flattened penny on a string and the rabbit’s foot that hops into a couple of songs? What then? “When the tired has got its grips on you,” promises Robinson on “Beesting,” “I’ll hold you tight and love you true, down to my very marrow.” Or, more simply put on the closing vow, “Wishin’ on the Cars,” “I’ll be there for you.”
Yep, it’s a mad-love journey. And at the end, the truly blessed have someone to hold straitjacket close.
For more, see www.myspace.com/mylowthealbum.