Rich Robinson gets a second shot at his debut Paper
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
Putting Rich Robinson’s Paper onto a turntable is like stepping through a wormhole. There’s a sprawling, confident nature to the songs, with shifting styles that are bound together by an adherence to groove and an understanding of what makes a song work and what keeps an album interesting.
That it happens to be his debut record is something of a technicality. First released in 2004, Paper was given a second life thanks to a flooded warehouse and a renewed commitment to life as a solo artist. It’s a first step, and it’s also a second chance at setting a career arc.
This re-release serves as an important bridge in Robinson’s career as he begins to firmly step away from his previous life as guitarist in the Black Crowes and into his new identity as a stand-alone singer, songwriter and producer. His potential for success apart from his band was best displayed in the Black Crowes’ music. He was writing all of it and essentially serving as the band’s musical director, tightening arrangements and keying when to go off on a jam or exploration on stage.
On his debut Paper, that musical direction was still there, but by basically working without an editor and serving as a full-time singer for the first time, the first result fell somewhere in that dreaded middle — certainly not bad but never reaching the heights a longtime listener would hope for.
But nature and time have a way of correcting all those initial missteps. Since 2004, the Black Crowes got back together and broke up again, repeating that cycle until a 2013 tour and an explicit declaration finally put the band on the shelf. In those 12 years, Robinson began to sing more, wrote and recorded two more solo albums, a handful of EPs and singles and toured extensively, developing a calm, confident vocal style that no longer seems as limited in range as it had on his debut album.
Nature took care of the rest. As Robinson notes in the album jacket, Hurricane Sandy wiped out a storage locker with much of his equipment in 2012, including amps, guitars and a number of master tapes. When the time came to re-release Paper, he discovered that while the backing tracks survived, nearly all of the vocals and some other instrumental overdubs were gone.
And so came that rare second chance in music. Listening to the results, he made the most of it. All the vocals have been re-recorded, outtakes from the initial sessions were revived, tracklists were rearranged, some lyrics rewritten. The result is a much better record that falls nicely in line with the rest of his growing catalog, and in just about every instance, every change was an improvement.
In its original incarnation, “Yesterday I Saw You” kicked off the album with the thick slap of a half-dozen overdriven guitars, a guitarist’s statement and a declaration of independence. But having that many guitars and that much fuzz set an overly aggressive move that arguably didn’t fit Robinson’s tone as a songwriter. Here, the guitars are leaner, the solo is tightened up and the song becomes much more the potential rock classic than it was before.
And as with the entire album, the vocals are much stronger than they were in 2004. With years of touring and singing in a studio setting now under his belt, he’s much more able to get that easy, detached tone that he achieved far less often when he first had to find his voice. The vocals on the original “Yesterday I Saw You” came across as flat, with layering trying to cover up that effect. But with those washed away, he’s able to add his relatively new vocal strength to this first batch of songs.
It goes on. “Leave It Alone” has much brighter vocals in its call-and-response setup, and some of the slide guitar overdubs have either been toned down or re-recorded entirely. Again, it all serves the song better and works as evidence of his growth in recording. With each song, the notion that he was just a guitarist who needed a proper singer melts away, and what remains are the songs themselves.
It’s not typically a great idea to go back and re-record parts of an album 12 years after its initial release. But it’s also not typical to have half an album destroyed in a storm. Given the growth in Robinson’s work since the Black Crowes went back into the scrap heap, the unfortunate loss gave him a chance to revisit his first stab at life outside the band. The final product is one that feels much more in place with his work and as the first step in a new direction, rather than a side project made while waiting for a band to get back together.
As second chances go, he’s made the most of it, displaying a confidence in his abilities as a solo act that he couldn’t have had when he was first thrown into the fire.
E-mail Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org