Gentle songs for the coming summer from transplanted Englishman, Steve Robinson.
Release Date: 16th February 2021
Label: YBOR/City Records
Formats: CD / Digital
Steve Robinson is an amiable, self-deprecating Scunthonian who, in the mid 1980s, availed himself of an enviable opportunity to relocate to the USA. Initially, he transplanted himself in St. Petersburg on Florida’s Gulf Coast and he’s now resident in Hendersonville, North Carolina, just a stone’s throw from the Blue Ridge Mountains. I guess you make your own luck in this world… Anyway, since relocating to the US, he’s managed to build quite a career and reputation for himself, firstly as a member of Florida folk/rock combo The Headlights and, more latterly, as a solo performer and also as a member of a duo along with his buddy Ed Woltil.
As a member of The Headlights, he was blessed with the opportunity to share concert stages with acts such as The Band, the Grateful Dead, The Ramones, Steve Winwood and Joe Walsh, and The Headlights were, for a period, Roger McGuinn’s touring band. When you consider that the long list of musicians Steve admires and from whom he draws influence include The Byrds, The Dead and The Band, along with Bob Dylan, XTC, Richard Thompson, Elbow and REM, he must have felt that he was living a constant dream! Swallowing the Sun is Steve’s fourth solo effort – his previous albums are Away For The Day (2004) and Undercurrent (2007) and he released an EP, The Ride of Our Lives in 2007. His most recent recorded output was Cycle, a highly regarded duo album with Ed Woltil, released in 2011.
Publicity for Swallowing the Sun alludes to a desire to produce a set of songs that cover a range of genres from “straight ahead folk/rock to quirky McCartneyish, XTC-tinged alt-pop, with the odd wink and a nod to 80s darlings like The Smiths and Aztec Camera as well as a tarty Stones-like diatribe against the political weaponization of religion.” That’s quite an ambition and the good news is that Steve’s done that, at least, most of it. These are songs on which influences like XTC and Dylan shine through clearly; traces of The Byrds and Elbow are also detectable if you care to look, but, at least to my ears, the overwhelming influence that pervades most of the album is The Beatles – mainly the 67-68 psychedelic period – with strains of John, George and Paul all coming through loud and clear. Also, despite having spent nigh-on 40 years as a US resident, Steve’s Lincolnshire tones are still strongly (and, I suspect, proudly) detectable in his singing. It all adds to the overall impression that this is a collection of songs with roots in swinging Summer-of-Love London that have undergone a course of seamless Americanisation surgery.
Current single, Sorry Amsterdam kicks off proceedings and sets the scene for what’s to come, with electric and acoustic guitars combining nicely to establish that late 60s feel. With lyrics that recall the indie-rock of the mid-1980s, it’s either an ode to Morrissey and Marr, or a slice of personal reflection – the listener can decide. Peddlers of religious evangelism take a broadside in Wild God, a song that pulls no punches with lyrics like “Eat your words and spew your junk, Fill your boots ‘till you’re all sunk.” Just to make sure that the message isn’t lost, the song is delivered in a sub-Lennon sneer, whilst the loping bass and psychedelic guitar sounds remind us how Tomorrow Never Knows…
The Beatles influence is laid completely bare in Quiet One, a respectful and truly complimentary tribute to George Harrison – his guitar work, his demeanor and his beliefs. The subject matter is given extra emphasis by some wonderful George-like slide guitar, played by XTC’s Dave Gregory and with lyrics like “Enlightened one – be the flame that lights my way.” We switch Beatles for Milk and a Dash, a sentimental reflection of Northern English life in the 1970s. It’s a song in best McCartney traditions of shelters in the middle of roundabouts, heading upstairs on the bus for a smoke and meeting men from the motor trade, but here the points of reference are things like Gollywogs on jam jars, beans and Spam, penny cakes and Gilbert O’Sullivan.
Mr Empty Head is joyful, urgent and poppy with typically 1960s “stream of consciousness” lyrics whilst Skinful is poignant and reflective with lyrics that pick out personal inadequacies – insensitivity, isolation, lies, self-righteousness and disloyalty all get a mention – and offers advice on how difficulties can be faced down, all with a backing that includes some sublime atmospheric pedal steel playing from ex-Headlight Steve Connelly. Make You Mine is a straight-ish folk song – light and poppy with clever lyrics that compare the pursuit of love variously to a commercial contract, making a cup of tea, a race and a circus performance – it’s all great fun, and Smiling Delirious is a short, enjoyable, ukulele ditty. The album closes with two love songs – one trivial, one serious. Dizzy Love Song is a bouncy, summery, light pop number with a nice Beatles/psyche ending and Proud of Our Love is an earnest statement of commitment that would have slotted nicely onto the McCartney album.
I’ve left the best until last. Needle in The Red is, for me, the album’s outstanding track, a rocky number with gospel overtones that questions overdependency on God’s influence with lyrics like “Is your God precious, Is your God good?” and explores the individual’s ability to find the inner strength and motivation to overcome disappointment – all complemented by some delightful slide work and a soaring guitar solo.
Swallowing the Sun was recorded at Steve’s home studios in St. Petersburg and Hendersonville, with Dave Gregory’s and Steve Connelly’s inputs being added remotely in, respectively, Swindon, UK, and St. Petersburg. Steve himself plays acoustic and electric guitars, bass guitar, ukulele, harmonica and percussion, Ed Woltil adds more electric, acoustic and bass guitars, as well as keyboards and programming and Dan DeGregory plays drums. Production (by Steve and Ed) is light-handed and the overall effect is pleasant and enjoyable. The songs are gentle and pleasant, and convey more than a hint of the free and easy summer that is hopefully coming our way. Swallowing the Sun is well worth a listen.
Listen to Make You Mine by Steve Robinson from the album below.