Singer/songwriter Gregg Robins’ debut album, Everything That Matters, fairly drips with earnest emotion. An American ex-pat from the Bronx living in Russia after the breakup of his marriage, he has dedicated the album he calls “the realization of a dream,” to his three daughters. The songs reflect his personal journey, as he tries to come to terms with his feelings about love, family and country. Emotional sincerity is the hallmark of this album. And while sincerity of expression is certainly the standard for artistic integrity, there are times when an artist’s sincerity can get in the way.
Sincerity is sometimes best served by artifice. Too often a writer can forget that how something is said is as important as what is being said. There are times in some of these songs when personal emotion seems to get hung up in impersonal platitude. Robins is at his best when he finds specific images to represent his emotional content, as he does in “Sounds of the Day,” the album’s first song. The images may not be particularly innovative—the wind and rain—but they are nonetheless evocative. The patriotic anthem “Heroes,” on the other hand, for all its good intentions gets lost in abstraction. “Do the thing shall breed the thought,” as one poet put it.
Sometimes the syntax of his verse, as in songs like the sweetly sentimental “Goodbye and Hello” and the autobiographical “Pages of My Life,” is a little tortured. This is unfortunate because the music itself is always smoothly captivating. It is interesting that Robins includes a Russian version of “Pages” as a bonus thirteenth track, and for my money, the Russian translation is equally, if nor more effectively honest—this despite the fact that I can’t understand a word of Russian. Melodically, Robins’ songs are beautifully simple. Often the melodies remind me of some of the best of early Paul Simon; others have compared them to Cat Stevens. His lyrics don’t always do them justice.
Still, there is an infectious honesty about his music. Whether he is singing about his feelings about the 2008 election as he looks at it from outside the country in “Morning in America,” or his reflections on the anniversary of his loss of contact with his three daughters in “Memories and Yesterdays,” his emotional commitment always seems genuine. His vocals are filled with the dramatic strength of his emotions. The musical arrangements move elegantly between the simple and understated and the lushly orchestrated, effectively complementing his songs’ dramatic arcs.
“Everything That Matters” Robins says, “is a journey for me across the spectrum of human emotion and experience from heartbreak to love, separation to reuniting to the euphoria of an historic election and the spirit and saga of our soldiers far away. Drawing on a range of musical styles and influences from classical to jazz, and Russian and American folk rock, the songs range from ballads to sing-out-loud, clap-along tunes. While the songs vary musically, for me the common thread is the lyrics that I try to make honest, forthright, and hopeful.”