I'm going to stick my neck out here. If I could turn you on to one new artist this year it would be Sharon Robinson. Technically she isn't new. She's been behind the scenes for quite a while, doing everything from co-writing Patti LaBelle's "New Attitude" to producing some of Leonard Cohen's most significant recent work. Everybody Knows is her debut release as a solo artist, though, so although she has been a presence in the music world for around 30 years, we can categorize her as new on those terms. Her own terms, as she wrote or co-wrote the songs, produced, arranged and recorded them and has released it independently. New releases by artists, who are decidedly adult and proud of it, have been few and far between and adult oriented music that is not imitative and doesn't pander to nostalgia, is even more of a rarity. Nyee Moses did it last year, Robinson has done it this year. It's exciting and refreshing to hear artists step into their own and this is a reminder of how thrilling true Adult Alternative music can be.
Comparisons often do injustice to artists who are true originals but they work well as an attention getting device, so here they are. Imagine a combination of Sade but with deeper, more expressive voice and Joni Mitchell in her jazzy period, then add the trancey but feel of Everything But The Girl. Add to that the lyrical insight and poetic sense of Leonard Cohen because she has been collaborating with him for years, is the vocalist in his touring band, and writes with a similar level of insight and literacy. She never takes the line of least resistance lyrically, she goes for the deep stuff. If Robinson had made it onto the Starbucks promotional train before it hit the wall of saturation and disinterest she would be a star by now. This is the type of pure Adult Alternative music they used to hype and sell off the racks. It's smart, accessible and delivered by a gifted, original, and mature artist. It is full of melodies that manage to sound fresh and familiar at the same time and lyrics that perfectly nail the emotions and situations we go through as we gain more experience in life and love.
Robinson produced and arranged the songs, layering the parts to wrap around her voice and the songs before adding additional musicians to the mix. The effect is subtle and haunting. Even though the songs are mostly slower have a sense of motion that sets them apart from most downtempo music. Although the instrumentation is similar to chill with it's electronic beats and textures, there is melody and fluidity here that exudes warmth with icy undercurrents only present when the songs demand them. She sings precisely, without affectation or gimmicks, using her rich, deep alto to color each word with the emotion implicit in these songs.
"The Train" is a perfect example. A song about detachment and alienation, the arrangement is sparse, with rhythms and textures that evoke the sound of a passing train. Her phrasing and the way she bends some of the notes is reminiscent of Joni's Hejira, another sparsely produced project that was driven by introspection and wanderlust. In "Everybody Knows," one of the songs co-written with Cohen, her voice reveals a world-weary acceptance and indictment of a cheating lover. "Everybody knows you've been discreet, there were just too many people you had to meet, without your clothes. Everybody knows." You can hear her shaking her head in resignation as the song unfolds. And who has not been to that place at least once? "Secondhand" is hypnotically bluesy - full of melodic twists and key changes with a chorus that still begs you to sing along. "The High Road" sounds Cohen-ish here with its subtle delivery but with fuller production it has the makings of a pop-country hit. "Invisible Tatoo" is the most commercial track because it does have that Sade-ish groove but her voice is more flexible and she sings inside of the song rather than just gliding on the surface. "Party for the Lonely" carries the same swaying groove but with darker undercurrents as synthesized voices in the background reinforce the theme of loneliness and the futility of "look(ing) to another to make you feel whole." Besides the title track, there are two other Robinson-Cohen collaborations. "Alexandra Leaving" is pure poetic narrative, "Suzanne" without the purity of the character or the innocence of those times. Roberta Flack recorded "Summertime" and you can hear how it would fit her voice. There is a Joni-ish inflection that pervades this song but it doesn't sound imitative, it's just the way the song comes together.
Besides, think of the effect those Joni albums had when they first came out and you ran home to put them on and listen over and over. (David Sedaris wrote a beautiful piece about that in one of his books.) That is how this album will affect you. I ended lying on the couch in a room lit by candles, nursing a good case of the flu with an iPod full of songs while tropical storm Fay blew limbs off the trees outside. This album is the only one I wanted to hear that night. Nothing else seemed smart enough, cool enough, or comforting enough. That's the way music should affect a listener. This will find you wherever you happen to be and lure you into hitting the repeat button over and over again.