Why Kenny Roby’s album “Memories and Birds” is one of the best albums I’ve ever heard
I’ve been trying all day, all weekend in fact, to figure out why Kenny Roby’s “Memories and Birds” record (released in 2013) is one of my favorite records not just in recent years, but of all time. I’ve said it before – for me his voice is like an endless black velvet painting that, no matter whether the subject of the painting is meant to be whimsical or serious, given the fact that the subject matter is conveyed on black velvet, well, it instantly becomes inherently dark and moody and sad, no matter what is actually laid over the canvas. No matter how rocking or how soft.
But there’s much more going on with Mr. Roby and the weak metaphor that I have concocted.
As for a summary of Kenny’s musical history, well, there’s no need for me to rewrite that when Hal Bogerd from “No Depression” did that so well last year in an interview with Kenny:
“Kenny Roby’s Six String Drag released two excellent albums including High Hat on Steve Earle’s E-Squared label. Ryan Adams namechecked Roby in Rolling Stone as “the best songwriter that not enough people have heard yet”. But Six String Drag broke up in spite of the critical acclaim and then Kenny released several solo albums following the split before taking a break from recording for the last seven years. That long gap is thankfully broken with the release of Memories and Birds (release date: 4/3/13 on Little Criminal Records). With Six String Drag and on his solo albums Roby rocked and twanged although there were suggestions that Kenny had something different, something more, to offer. That promise is fulfilled on his latest and most fully developed record to date…
Memories and Birds is not the stripped down alt-country effort some fans might have expected. Utilizing viola, clarinet, cello, saxophones, flute, clavinet and background vocals to supplement the bass, guitar and drums Kenny and Jason Merritt have produced an album that rivals the stark narrative of Springsteen’s Nebraska while the instruments, rich production and Roby’s voice recall and rival the best work of Randy Newman, Leonard Cohen and Elvis Costello.”
Rival the best work of Randy Newman, Leonard Cohen, and Elvis Costello.
That is one of the greatest compliments any singer/songwriter could ask for or ever expect.
But what makes for Kenny being listed among such great artists and masters of their chosen craft?
For me, what’s hanging over this record, within it, what’s fundamental to it’s perfection is that all of the characters contained within these songs, as well as the man spinning the tales, have failed to match their dreams of perfection.
His music – within and without – is a cataloging of failures to do the impossible and you know that if these characters, and even Kenny, could have a go at all of it again, they would all still be trying. Both Kenny as the artist singing these particular songs (as the author and narrator) and his characters lack something and feel that lack to varying degrees. Suffering (or at least acknowledging that lack) is, to me, a required state for meaningful and lasting art. What takes these folks’ work to the level of enjoyment is that there is an affection for that kind of suffering – we’re all in it together and they all, including Kenny, treat it fondly. The singing, music and song-writing itself is not self conscious in its construction of the kind of suffering that hints oh-so-affectionately at the tragedy of man –
(Who in the hell can pull that off in ways that entertain? – well, let’s give nods to Faulkner, Dostoevsky, Magnetic Fields, Istvan Orkeny, Gogol, Bulgakov, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Leonard Cohen – many of these are noted in Kenny’s interview, in fact)
but yet, to pull off something as complex as “Memories and Birds”, every note, every line has to on one level be exactly self-conscious and calculated. But it doesn’t feel like that. It never feels like that. And that’s why it belongs up there with the greats of ANY kind of art production.
The thing is, Kenny’s voice strives to match the music and the images and dreams contained within. For me, it’s a record about the struggle of the artist to find that perfect intersection where voice, music, images, and dreams line up perfectly to tell a story. The fact that said voice is so silky smooth and rich and nuanced, well, we just go with the flow and ignore the struggle and settle into its ebb and flow.
If Kenny’s life’s work ever does achieve perfect alignment among all of those elements, well then he might do what William Faulkner suggests in an interview long ago (and I liken Kenny more to William Faulkner than any singer/songwriter I’ve ever known of and that’s a FUCKING achievement):
“Once [the artist did it], once he matched the work to the image, the dream, nothing would remain but to cut his throat, jump off the other side of that pinnacle of perfection into suicide…The writer’s only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one. He has a dream. It anguishes him so much he must get rid of it. He has no peace until then. Everything goes by the board: honor, pride, decency, security, happiness, all…”
For me, “Memories and Birds” is about that anguish and even the characters within suffer from that same lack of peace.
Some call it a quiet record. I don’t think so.