Cracked Picture Frames by Robert Chaney is a debut record with the heft of a seasoned volume. There are no singles: these are all deep cuts. It may be easy to miss the trees for the forest, with the “one man and a guitar” composition of the album. The melodies are alternately sweet, bitter, and haunting, and Chaney wields his guitar and breathy voice with equal precision, but the world has not yet begun to run short of talented guitar players or folks with interesting voices. The wordsmiths, the songwriters, the ones with voices and not just vocal chords…those are far more rare.
Chaney is from Florida but now resides in London, and while there are musical arrangements that seem decidedly European this is unquestionably an American folk record. There’s some Townes here, and some Dylan; in our corner of the musical world, unquestionably Chaney’s lyrical contemporaries are Isbell, Moreland, and Kneiser. These are songs that need to be inhaled and exhaled, taken in. I listened to it repeatedly before I stopped rushing through it, before I allowed my mind to take the time that these songs deserve.
A large component of my dawning appreciation was studying the lyrics as I listened to the song, pouring over the words as the sound washed over me in turn. I could quote them at you incessantly, as each track has plenty of captivating turns of phrase: the heartbreaking inevitability of domestic violence as told by the abuser as he watches his life slip away in “Black Eyed Susan”, the masochistic melancholy of “The Morning After”, the tragedy of all-too-common Costa Rican auto fatalities in “Corazones Amarillos”…these are ten well-chosen stories, well-told.
While it’s not clear how many of these stories are true to life, either in Chaney’s experience or that of another, he’s proven he can take the grist of life and turn it into something palatable, even nourishing. Closing track “The Ballad of Edward and Lisa” is ripped from horrific ‘only in Florida’ headlines, about a woman who attempted to blind her nephew in order to save him from the Devil, and how the boy’s aunt and grandmother both left him to bleed overnight. The song is careful and delicate, somehow both factual and compassionate. Chaney’s guitar dances around his singing the same way his lyrics dance around the subjects of his songs. These are flawed people trying to explain themselves best they can; nothing is excused, nothing explained away. There is love here, and loss, despair and freedom, and all of it is viewed evenly and with open eyes.
Cracked Picture Frames by Robert Chaney is Essential Listening. This is a powerhouse of potent songs, all the more impressive because it is the artist’s first record. The Ninebullets crowd is the perfect audience for the twin beauty and sadness that Chaney writes, and I’m unbelievably excited to share this record with you.