Kenny Roby takes the kind of grizzly, snarling press photos that make you think he might be exactly the kind of guy you wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley or a bar brawl. And then he sings the title song to his new album, Memories & Birds — a song so dusky and softly lilting, so resonate with strings and with breath and with the sigh of a thousand peach-colored sunsets and even more purple sunrises. He sings with such tenderness, such graceful care, his big bear baritone burnished smooth. He sings, “If you really wanted, you could crush me with a word,” and it’s totally believable. He’s the beast, broken by beauty.
And if that was the only song on the album it would be enough. More than enough. But no, there’s more. If eight tracks sounds slight — barely more than an EP — Memories & Birds is a monumental work; as masterful as it is intentional. “Monster” is a slight-of-hand of slinky beats and lyrics that rise and fall like stones skipping horizon-ward. The strings, the horn hits, the jingle of something (tambourine? handbell?) elevate the song. Not in an upping-the-ante way, but in the way Tony Hawk elevates skateboarding to something more like gravity-free acrobatics.
The album is not exactly effortless. It’s a bit of a magnum opus. It feels suffered for. But the suffering is transcended and what could be fraught is, instead, light. A quiver of strings on the expansive and brooding “Colorado” recalls the magic with which Van Morrison infused Veedon Fleece. Evolving a personal love song into something universal is no beginner’s trick. Roby’s record shows its work, at moments, as a road map this particular arrived-at genius. But even those athletes and artists who appear so effortless, only achieve that by putting in the work, taking the bumps and bruises, failing, falling and getting back up. Memories & Birds is the sound of the rise after the fall.
“Tired Of Being In Love,” despite the shrug in its name, is upbeat and pleasantly jangly. Horns and backup singers provide atmosphere to the tongue-and-cheek tune — though these remain firmly in the background, serving the song rather than riding roughshod over it. The track hints at something retro, something Elvis à la “Suspicious Minds.” But everything that could come off as throwback kitsch is, instead, freshly envisioned. Roby takes risks, but these are calculated risks. Weighed and measured.
Roby’s faster tunes are infused with energy and winking fun, but it’s his slower songs that really showcase his deftness. His lightness of foot and ease in his spirit. And, even among and album full of standouts, “A Short Mile” is something special. It’s a song that breathes, that expands in the lungs and in the atmosphere, all sea breeze and ebb. “A flutter in your ear, deeper than any fear, that you were not made to hear. And I can’t sing that low,” Roby sings. The low tones in his voice are the perfect counter balance to the luminous higher notes, which aren’t high at all, but sweetly vibrant.
And then there’s the unhurried guitar work, the way a few thoughtful notes fall more profoundly than the flashiest solo. And how a few words can say so much: “I know I’m breaking up. I can see it in your smile.”
I don’t come to this album with any familiarity of Roby’s back catalog — his years fronting Raleigh-based Americana outfit Six String Drag. I know that he’s a bit of a songwriter’s songwriter; that he’s the kind of musician who drops in, starts a crack band, writes the kind of album that critics go crazy for, and then disappears again. I get that Memories & Birds is a homecoming of sorts, but as a stand-alone album, free of the burden of past, it’s an exquisitely accomplished work. It’s a story that unfolds in its own time and manages, in its reveal, to tell us as much about ourselves as it does about the musician who created it.
Kenny Roby holds an album release show at The Grey Eagle on Tuesday, April 2. Seated. 8 p.m. $10 in advance or $12 day of show.