“Everything is free now, / that’s what they say. / Everything I ever done, / gonna give it away.”
Innocence blisters. Sometimes you have to take it – and yourself – away for a while, to cradle it and let it heal.
In spite of over thirty years in the songwriting business (he started young, with anything that he could get his hands on), Robert White still has that quality of innocence. If he’s got scars, he bears them calmly and with acceptance, but he must have suffered some psychic sunburn along the way. There were those early ’80s swirls around no-budget London psychedelia, keeping up a fit of giggles and avoiding becoming a casualty. Then there was the bristling musical tensions of Levitation, continually blowing their own heat-shield and ending up as five men biting each others ankles. Finally, there was the pearly, patchy career of his own Milk & Honey Band.
It’s not as if the Milks were the only people in the last couple of decades who smoked and breathed that Beatles mix of singalong wit, music hall parp and peacock splendor (Karl Wallinger and Roland Orzabal, to name but two, made a decent fist of it). But for my money, if you want that luminous Lennon/McCartney glow picked up and rolled out like a quilt, then Bob’s yer avuncular. He and the Milks should have been treasured by everyone. You; your granny; ‘Mojo’ Man; that painfully hip little boy down the road who secretly yearns for pure pop and papers his bedroom wall with old Byrds and Teenage Fanclub sleeves. Instead, you probably never got to hear them. Shame. And for three years, Bob has been hiding up and keeping quiet: skulking in Fulking, on the South Downs chalkhills. Those gifts which he used to apply to music, he’s been spending on photography instead – pictures of local landscapes blown up with a wondrous inner light; an illumination rendering sweeping Sussex hillsides alive with warm energies.
Here, though, is Bob alone; drawn back to instruments, woodshedding again. Now he’s pulling the dustcloth off a beautiful brand new Gillian Welch cover for us to have a listen to. Welch seems to be something of a go-to girl for art-rockers; at least, for those of them who are thirsty for a wellspring of country without the taste of cattle and spurs (see also A Marble Calm’s glorious Frisell-meets-Eno roll through I Dream A Highway) and Bob’s version honours her original simplicity. He could have festooned it in harmonies and ringing guitars, but instead it’s mostly just him, a light-as-moonbeams piano, and the kind of reverb that turns slapback into caress. Everything else there has blossomed onto the song like dew. There are touches of synth cello, a glockenspiel or two; maybe a celesta towards the end. As things travel onwards, water-drop swells of backward sound are delicately varnished onto the keystrokes.
That’s the sound: now listen to the song, and the singer. Bob’s voice is lower than it was, perhaps tempered with a couple of hairline cracks of resignation, as he slips inside Welch’s words and makes them his own. The business bruises; the thoughts of escape, and of dignity – “I can get a tip jar, gas up the car, / try to make a little change down at the bar. / Or I can get a straight job – I’ve done it before. / Never minded working hard, it’s who I’m working for.” Disaffection, though, doesn’t entirely clog up the world. The compulsion of songs is sometimes sung about as if it were a curse: here, it’s more about music coming regardless. It’s hard not to feel that Bob’s singing for himself when he murmurs out lines of guarded, flowing creation (“every day I wake up humming a song / but I don’t need to run around, I just stay home,”) and, finally, resolution. (“I’m going to do it anyway / even if it doesn’t pay.”) I think he’s back. Please don’t miss him this time, will you?
Robert White: ‘Everything Is Free’
Robert White (no catalogue number or barcode)
Released: 13th February 2013
Get it from:
Currently only viewable as video – no wider release announced yet. Video by Nick Power @ iseetigers.