The greyest - that's greyest, thank you - blog in the world has coughed back into life to run its twig-like fingers over an album before the summer gets here and ruins the mood. London-based folkie Robin, er, Grey has made an album that suggests sea air, Celtic redheads, old-fashioned pubs and late-night Guinness-fuelled ruminations on life. As such, he's mortally afraid of that hot thing in the sky and, as the action photo above makes clear, has to make a dash for the nearest tearoom whenever the clouds part.
The eight tracks on Strangers With Shoes use only the latest plug-ins and MIDI controllers, most of which are new to me. What are these things called ukeleles, accordions, violins, banjoes and flutes? Still, they worked nicely on Robin's previous outing, Only The Missile, so I assume that all of the new software is now out of beta.
We start with Younger Looking Skin, a merry banjo and accordion-led romp through non-sequiturs so obtuse that your forehead will need Botox if you try to work out what on earth Grey is banging on about. Fear not, Till Dawn will smooth your troubled brow with a gorgeous fluttering flute from Poppy Villiers-Stuart and quintessentially folky (read winsome) backing vocals, presumably also from the same mellifluously-named Poppy.
I Love Leonard Cohen first made an appearance on Robin's 2008 EP of the same name, and it certainly deserves another outing. It's a winning, sly look at how one's tastes change over the years. (Wedding snaps from the early 1970s are always kept under lock and key. Those flares...) I particularly like the chorus and its build-up, whose subtle pauses and changes in rhythm confirm that Strangers With Shoes is worth a listen or three. In case you're worried, Mr Grey is not quite as lugubrious as Mr Cohen. /Reservoir Dogs
Not only does the next song, The Suitors Ballyhoo, revive an underused but perfectly good word for its title (I can never get enough of "The"), it will also have you singing its catchy refrain of "I, I, I, I, I, I want you" at highly inappropriate times. After that is Montreal, a fine song marred only by a slightly affected delivery from Robin, who sounds as though he's not quite comfortable with the vocals on this one.
Shakes & Shudders, another refugee from ILLC, tells the tale of a slow train ride on a slow day:
I'm making my way north on an unpretentious day/Yesterday the sky was naked/Today she's wrapped herself in grey/And I have cloaked myself in my hat and coat and dreams/So for now I am safe from the cold/Whatever today brings.
Robin's voice and Beth Dariti's gentle background vocals and guitar accompaniment will make good use of five minutes of your life. Those of you in Europe and the USA who are snowed in will find that it's the perfect soundtrack for watching snowflakes float by, especially if you remember that Shakes & Shudders was co-written in an afternoon and recorded in one take. Those of you in more temperate zones: go out, dance, seduce attractive people, etc. The music will be waiting for you when the hangover kicks in (unless you're reading this via a RSS feed reader, in which case you'll have to knock on CTW's door).
Enjoy the good times while you can, because the next track, Ninety Days, is a terrific post-breakup song, and sourer than a liver & liqourice cocktail served by an underpaid waiter with fallen arches. Ben Oliver of Blue Swerver, having made a full recovery from an old CTW review, confirms his talent thanks to some excellent Rhodes piano noodling, while Robin lets rip with a curse that made me grab my petticoat. I'd love to hear a stadium crowd join in with the catharsis. It'll certainly liven up any Women's Institute gigs. Oh, go on then, but it's NSFW:
The chief strength of the final song, Roses From Africa, is its cheerful, valedictory atmosphere, reinforced by the playful violin of Barbara Bartz. It feels like an end-of-show song designed to:
a) send the audience on its way home with a smile on its face;
b) allow the theatre manager to switch the stage lights off one by one;
c) give Robin and his fellow musos time to dash to the bar before last orders;
d) impel online fans to buy Strangers With Shoes;
e) and persuade the same online fans to see the man himself in concert.
Speaking of getting your grubby little hands on downloading/buying the music, Strangers With Shoes is available for free from Jamendo at a lo-fi (but actually very good thanks to excellent mixing and mastering) 192kbps, and is also available to buy & download from Bandcamp at an ever-so hi-fi 320kbps in a variety of formats at an ever-so low price of £4.99 (album) or 70p (per track). There's also a limited edition CD if you're not into the whole brevity thing.* I'll slap the Jamendo player in this review because The Big J needs all the help it can get at the moment, but please note that the Bandcamp version of Strangers With Shoes is an aural treat.
Oh, and just in case I haven't made myself clear, Robin Grey has talent coming out of his ears and into yours. If you agree, cross his plam with sliver or go and buy a dictionary. At the very least, send him a "thank you" email.
It's good to see that Robin is enjoying life after injury ended what was a promising career as a professional cyclist, the undoubted highpoint of which was, as this second action photo demonstrates, his finishing the 2007 Tour De France as the lanterne noire.