Luke Roberts – Big Bells and Dime Songs

January 01, 1970

(Thrill Jockey)


“One time…I spit and hit a dime,” Luke Roberts’ growls over
a spare, rough-hewn scrim of picking. His “Dime Song” sounds as if it were recorded
as if in the back room of a deserted bar in the bleary beginnings of a morning
after. His voice breaks and stretches over the notes, mournful and exhausted
and beaten. It’s an old-time sound, the kind of thing that ought to have been
recorded, originally, on wax cylinders. It speaks of hard times and
discouragement and endless persistence with few rewards, an artifact, perhaps,
from the Great Depression. Yet Roberts is 20-something, scraping by in
post-credit crunch America
rather than the 1930s. He laid the track down a year or two ago, with Harvey
Milk’s Kyle Spence sitting at the boards of his Athens, Georgia
recording studio. His spiritual contemporaries may be Karen Dalton and Woody
Guthrie, but he is about the same age as Lady Gaga. Strange world, isn’t it?


Bells and Dime Songs
is Roberts’ first album, released originally
and to little fanfare on the Ecstatic Peace label. But with tent cities of
homeless people rising in cities across America, with unemployment benefits
running out and hospitals turning the sick away, maybe things have gotten bad
enough for Roberts’ songs to resonate. It’s time, maybe, for our own Grapes of Wrath, our own “Brother Can
You Spare a Dime?” and maybe, as a consequence, time for Luke Roberts.


Roberts’ album is constructed of the most homespun bits, the
ragged riffs of acoustic picking, the thump and stomp of heavy drums, the
dogged negotiation of simple, care-worn melodies. A howl of amplified guitar
occasionally rumbles through these rustic, ruined landscapes, rearing up
through the coiled tensions of “Just Do It Blues.” Still, a good deal of the
power comes not from amps, but from hitting real objects harder than usual. The
drums on “All America,” for instance, are whacked with slow sadism, the mournful
melody pockmarked with unlooked for violence.  “Unspotted Clothes”, too, turns the percussion
up half a notch past the usual, whacking the offbeats with a vehemence
suggesting suppressed rage. It’s a slow-blossoming, graceful song, that is,
nonetheless, punched bloody by its drum beat.


Big Bells and Dime Songs conveys mood and emotion better
than it does story line and many of the song lyrics remain inexplicable even
after repeat listens. Who exactly are the “Epcot Women” called out in Robert’s
finger-picking composition, and what does it mean that they have “never been
sold”?  Who is walking away from whom in
“You’ll Walk Away,” and why?  The songs
that come closest to narrative coherence tend to jump the tracks, reversing
perspectives and switching characters when you least expect it. And what is one
to make, in the year 2011, of a white man from Nashville using the most racially charged of
all expletives in his lyrics, gratuitously, repeatedly, without any hint of


And yet, for rawness, for honesty, for trueness that doesn’t
necessarily bear much relationship to objective facts, you could hardly do
better than Big Bells and Dime Songs.
These songs may not scan perfectly or make much objective sense, but they feel
very real and relevant and uncalculated. The world careens towards a dark
tunnel, and Luke Roberts is there to sing it onward, raggedly, mournfully and
with a wryness aimed at all our pretensions.


DOWNLOAD: “Unspotted
Clothes” “Anyway” JENNIFER KELLY


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