Released: October 2015
Sometimes in life all you need is an acoustic guitar and the bare, unedited voice of a pensive singer-songwriter. This debut LP from Robert Chaney provides just that, as the man from Florida makes his way through ten tracks – ten raw and stripped back ballads that tell the only types of tales that really matter in music: those of love, loss and heartbreak.
The obvious comparison on here is to Dylan, whose voice and method of storytelling are ever present as influences throughout Cracked Picture Frames. However plenty of other folk, rock and pop names find themselves materialising in the minds of listeners as the album rolls along, from southern American classics to guitar groups of today. What shouldn’t be ignored either is Chaney’s own stylistic moves, which add a real personal dimension to this intimate record.
“4 o’clock on a Sunday morning” is where Chaney begins his story, as the poetry and conversational tone of voice heard in opener Black Eyed Susan asserts that the point of this album is its narrative instincts, and not musical arrangement or production value. The unpolished lo-fi sound of this track -merely a solitary voice and tenderly picked acoustic guitar are to be heard – is shared by all others on the record bar the pacey Birds and Bees, which employs a random object struck on every beat: hardly an intricate textural development. We are here to witness Chaney’s stories and confessions, not his instrumental prowess.
And through his stories he is most certainly confessional. The Cyclist is a song about separation, distance and alienation. “I didn’t touch her nor wish to be touched” Chaney laments, whilst playing through dark chords in a style reminiscent of The Animals or The Yardbirds, found elsewhere on the equally sincere track Patch It Up. This classy number tells of broken relationships and heartache, a sophisticated blend of Nancy Sinatra and the recently popularised Sixto Rodriguez (see Searching for Sugarman).
Does Your Love Pay Out In Full? has Chaney weigh up the pros and cons of forgiveness, as well as consider the damning permanence of love. “I don’t hate the player, I don’t even hate the game / I only hate the fact that I fell for you” he bemoans, his bare voice subtly embedding complex emotional crisis into an otherwise simplistically formed song. If the lack of production makes listeners feel like they are in the room with Chaney, the powerfully affecting tone of his vocal performances communicates even more intimacy, like a true heart to heart exchange.
It is impossible to describe the music itself without suggesting that it is decidedly plain. Though Chaney’s guitar work is more than adequate and his voice suitably melodious, nothing particularly impressive is to be found outside of his crushing lyricism. Imagine the minimalist sounds of Badly Drawn Boy or Elliott Smith and then strip them down even further; in fact on a vaguely topical note the late Gavin Clark, whose music featured on the recently concluded This Is England, might be a good point of reference.
There really is nothing incredibly special about the sound of Cracked Picture Frames, yet for the entirety of its 40 minute runtime listeners are hooked by its stirring imagery and emotional intensity. Sometimes rating systems are flawed in that with each star is carried a great deal of weight and expectation. This might get full marks but if you’re after something extraordinary, something radical, look elsewhere. If however you’re willing to accept Robert Chaney for the honest and unambiguous artist that he is, there is a real treat to be found here.