It only took the news of a move to venerated indie label Saddle Creek to predict how Miles Anthony Benjamin Robinson’s sophomore album would sound. He would totally indulge in all the Bruce Springsteen-jocking aphorisms and Bob Dylan-lite tics that percolated beneath the surface of his ragged (and briefly excellent) self-titled debut. The label move was executed after he and Kyp Malone banged out Summer of Fear a while ago (it was completed before his debut was even out), but it isn’t a mystery why Saddle Creek would want to put this out. It’s a breakup album that has dark imagery and blatant Tom Petty references, with Robinson playing the sad bastard throughout. It’s like someone created a Saddle Creek record-deal Mad Lib, and Robinson was the first to fill it out.
Gone are the stripped down, self-confessional tales of drug-, emotional- and self-abuse from his debut, and in their place is the kind of turgid, dad-friendly slop that last summer Robinson was the antidote for. “Always an Anchor,” the ugh-inducing “Hard Row” (with lines about literal field plowing), the stomping “Death by Dust,” and the aptly titled, 11-minute slog “More than a Mess” all contain familiar sentiments about loss, love breaking down and hardship that Robinson buries in a mess of colliding styles (the Boss’s populism rock, Bob Dylan’s strummy Americana, TV on the Radio’s noise-sketches) and voices (he switches between a nasally squawk, a growling baritone, and a moaned whisper for no real discernible reason). Some of the blame should probably be laid at Kyp Malone’s feet, since he produced the entire album, and it bears the same mishmash of styles of his own Rain Machine project. But Robinson claims that this is his “true” debut, as his last one was just a proper demo that got buzz.
It’s not all a wash though, because when Robinson is on, he’s still damn captivating. “The Sound” augments his busted regal story in an always-moving drum beat and shouted group chorus, before exploding into squalls of guitar noise, combining the better ideas between album one and album two. “The 100th of March” has a murder-mystery tempo, before splitting off into its Chuck Mangione-friendly horn breakdowns (which I mean as a compliment), and “Losing 4 Winners” has a real fist-pumping vibe, which is the only time that can be said, despite the other supposed anthems here.
Summer of Fear marks Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson’s move to Saddle Creek Records as well as a move toward a slightly more produced sound. The album was written about the summer of 2007, when he began experiencing a bout of depression. As on his self-titled debut, Robinson again pairs with members of Grizzly Bear, but adds TV on the Radio’s Kyp Malone to aid in the production. On top of frustrated guitar play and lush but understated string arrangements, Robinson’s trembling, gravelly vocals remain the focus on this release.