Summer of Fear is the sophomore release by Brooklyn musician Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson, following his critically praised self-titled debut. Every singer-songwriter needs a compelling story, whether they are a guy recovering from a break up in a remote Wisconsin cabin or a Midwestern Woody Guthrie acolyte transplanted to the Big City to be near their dying hero. Robinson's last album was accompanied by stories of the hard living that led to the songs; this album comes with a press sheet describing the "awful unraveling" that Robinson went through in the summer of 2007, which included break-ups, self-doubt, and self-loathing.
This torment comes through in Robinson's strained voice, which sounds like a cross between Elvis Costello and Tom Petty. He often sounds unhinged, as if he is barely containing his rage and bitterness. This is contrasted with the music; Robinson seems to be taking a page from Conor Oberst, detouring from indie folk into 70s rock territory. Maybe this has to do with Robinson signing to Oberst's label, Saddle Creek. The songwriting has more to do with Tom Petty and Dire Straits than Elliot Smith or Iron and Wine. I've always felt that music from that era was bland and boring, and although Robinson is a good songwriter, the songs on Summer of Fear are tinged with that blandness.
Robinson is working with the stars of the New York indie scene; His backing band includes members Grizzly Bear, and the album was produced by Kyp Malone of TV on the Radio. Malone applies the layered instrumentation and sense of dramatic dynamics of TV on the Radio's music to Robinson's songs. The sound is beefed up from his first album. He has a band playing with him, and the electric guitars, drums, horns, and occasional strings flesh out the songs. Many of the tracks build from quiet whispers to frenetic climaxes, and there is a chaos and dissonance that further contrasts the 70s rock vibe of the album.
Ultimately, this is a breakup record. It captures the pain and anxiety of the end of a relationship over an unrelenting 60 minutes. It reminded me of Bob Dylan's Blood On the Tracks, both in the overall sound and the emotional wallop the album packs. Robinson even goes for an 11 minute epic with "More Than A Mess." Perhaps the true test of whether you will like Summer of Fear is how you feel about it. Is it cathartic and healing, or is it painful and uncomfortable? Does the content of the songs make up for the middle-of-the-road sound of the album? While listening to an hour of someone's emotional pain isn't my idea of a great time, Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson proves on Summer of Fear that he is a talented songwriter with a gift for capturing the painful moments in life.