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Luke Roberts - The Iron Gates at Throop and Newport

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Artist: Luke Roberts

Album: The Iron Gates at Throop and Newport

Label: Thrill Jockey

Review date: Mar. 20, 2012

There was an itinerant air to Luke Roberts’ first album Big Bells and Dime Songs, released first on Ecstatic Peace and later, last year, on Thrill Jockey. It sounded as if he’d arrived carrying a guitar case and not much else, and would, upon finishing the songs, be shuffling off to parts unknown. The songs were rough-hewn and profoundly eccentric, the kinds of tunes a guy might write to himself holed up in someone’s barn between hitches on the road from who knows where to whatever comes.

The Iron Gates at Throop and Newport is an altogether more settled affair, coming out of a still unvarnished, still sparsely furnished but unmistakably more secure environment. Even the name of the album, with its nod to streets in Brooklyn, speaks of a fixed address. He wrote these songs in a place where he could close the door, and where the debut felt, at times, unnervingly exposed, Iron Gates has a sense of center, balance and calm.

Not that he was done travelling, not by any means. After hashing out these songs in Brooklyn he moved first to Montana, then back to his native Nashville. There he met up with engineer Mark Nevers, who produced Iron Gates. You can hear a little of Lambchop’s evocative, minimalist Americana in the arrangements of these weather-beaten songs. There are subliminal throbs of fiddle, ghostly harmonies, the button-downed regularity of blues-picking wrapped around Roberts’ warbling, wavering tenor, full-band densities supporting his disconsolate lyrical imagery. The accompaniment puts a roof over Roberts’s head and floorboards under his feet, if not quite domesticating him at least giving his tunes a warmer and more welcoming air.

The question, though, is whether more accessible arrangements take the edge off Luke Roberts, whose debut was stark, apocalyptic and eccentric enough to be at least intermittently disturbing. The answer, I think, is no, or at least not yet. Roberts maintains an original, unconventional voice, which may actually sound weirder when surrounded by the accoutrements of traditional folk and country. “You Don’t Want Me Anymore,” for instance, is looped and adorned by silky billows of fiddle, sweetened by traceries of self-harmonies, yet it is not at all sentimental, and in fact, kind of chilling with its “stay away bitch” message. “His Song,” one of the album’s full-band Neil Young-ish best, starts out musing on a well-worn country topic — Jesus — but immediately runs off course. “The blood of Jesus,” Roberts intones in his pitch-shifting tenor, “causes so much pain. You could just forgive him / but he’s still the one to blame.” However you dress him up, even in strings and massed vocals and band instruments, Roberts is still very much an outsider.

Yet, he has never been quite as beautiful an outsider as on this record, particularly in “Spree Wheels” the album’s prettiest, most delicate song. The song begins in minor-key acoustic guitar picking, patterns of notes that lift up in hope, then fall half steps back down into something like weary acceptance. Roberts’ voice is surer and more melodic in this song than anywhere else on the album, even venturing a bit of vibrato into the long held notes. He is joined at the chorus in close harmonies with Emily Sundblad, the shadowy melancholy of the verse subsumed into a kind of pristine hope. They finish, and a violin picks up the thread, reeling off into luxuriant byways that are not quite happy, but not quite sad, either. It is a really lovely song, infused with an open-ended nostalgia for things we may not even realize we miss. (What is a spree wheel anyway?)

So Luke Roberts has settled without really settling down. He has a room of his own, a place to think and play and even to bring in other musicians. That has made his music weightier, prettier, but not a bit less individual. I’m not sure I’d like to hear him add a lot more instruments, or to become significantly more well-adjusted and conventional, but in Iron Gates he turns both changes into advantages.

By Jennifer Kelly

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