Phillip Roebuck, among his many other talents, excels in symbolism.
The cover of his last record, “The Alpine Butterfly,” was a blueprint illustration of a climber’s knot that could be tied with only one hand and without access to either end of a rope: “It’s a great metaphor for Roebuck,” I wrote at the end of an AltDaily review, “suggesting that he’s securely fastened in the slack between his musical past and future.”
In the four years since, Phillip ditched his banjo and notorious one-man band rig in favor of a resonator guitar, and he began performing with his wife, Phoenix, on upright bass and vocals.
Now comes “Sweet Gnarly,” their first record.
Before I comment on the EP’s seven excellent songs, it’s important again to consider the cover: a black-and-white photo of Phillip and Phoenix pulling themselves out of the water and onto an old wooden dock—the implication being that they jumped in together, fully clothed.
Figuratively, the good news is that Phoenix—a self-taught novice on bass—went in headfirst and floats confidently. The better news is that Phillip swims even more beautifully with her in the water. His songwriting is stronger than it’s ever been, and he clearly relishes the range of moods he can evoke with his beloved resonator.
The bad news, if there is any at all, is that “Sweet Gnarly” clocks in at only 20 minutes, so if you’re anything like me, you’ll be listening to it three times an hour.
That said, here are some random thoughts on each of the tracks:
“Green Sally,” a traditional song, sets the tone for the rest of the record. It is deceptively childish (think “Ring Around The Rosie”) but evocative of the era of slavery in the United States. “Green Sally up / Green Sally down / Last one squat / Gotta tear the ground,” they sing many times over, a reference to picking cotton. Aside from the powerful cultural implications and the percussive playing that has always dominated Phillip’s music, what stands out is Phoenix’s vocal work. She matches Phillip note for note and gives the music a Civil Wars-ish texture he could not achieve as a solo artist.
They switch gears—ahem—on “Put It In Park,” a playfully suggestive shuffle that showcases the cleverness of Phillip’s songwriting. Over a jangly guitar and Phoenix’s impressive bass work, he sings: “I know a great little place / Where I can look at your face / And whatever you desire they’ll bring / And when we get done there / Let’s put it in park somewhere.” Although I’m only minimally aware of Leon Redbone’s songbook, I can’t help but think he would hear this one and wish he had written it.
“Kick Down The Ladder” is the first of two straight-up blues rockers that warrant comparison to the Black Keys. Phillip riffs on the resonator, singing about a bad break-up: “Nobody knew a thing she never said a word / She took all my fire and left me here to burn / I was as in the dark as the day is long / She kicked down the ladder and now she never coming home.” The bitterness is palpable.
Phoenix is front and center on “What’s The Matter With The Mill,” a “call and response” written by the blues musician “Memphis Minnie” in 1930. She seems to sing it in character, and Phillip plays the complementary “Kansas Joe” role, answering the repeated title question with: “Done broke down.” (For what it’s worth: Both of the “roots” covers on “Sweet Gnarly” are pieces of African-American culture I, for one, probably would not have heard and appreciated if not for Roebuck digging them up and keeping them alive, so the EP is enlightening in that respect.)
“Blue Eyed Dream” is the most plaintive and maybe even the most personal of Phillip’s new songs, but it’s also the most abstract. Until I’m able to crack its code, I’ll just appreciate it for its simple musical beauty, which is plentiful—especially in the instrumental break.
“Last Call” is the second Black Keys-like song. Musically, it bears no resemblance to Phillip’s anthemic “Somebody Take Me Home,” but the lyrics play like a prequel. “It’s my last last call,” Phillip sings in the chorus, Phoenix again adding harmony. “Bound to get hammered and pound ’em like a nail / It’s my last last call / Or I’ll be sleeping in the courthouse jail.” (This song also features the phenomenal couplet: “Made mud angels in the parking lot / Made a blanket from a fireman’s hose / I fixed the Buick with a banjo string / A pencil and a piece of my clothes.”)
As great as the first six songs are, the pièce de résistance is “Granby Street.” Phillip uses the four seasons to poetically document the life of Norfolk’s storied thoroughfare. In the second verse, he sings: “Now the sidewalks bloom in spring / All the buskers sing / And lovers look like angels when they meet / Under the lights on Granby Street.” It’s hyper-local—there’s no telling how it will play beyond Hampton Roads—but the sentimentality gives me goosebumps, even on repeated listens.
Two more Roebucks are credited on “Sweet Gnarly,” making it a full-on family affair. Shea, Phillip’s cousin and former Hollowbodies bandmate, did the recording and mixing, and Ruby, Phillip’s daughter, did the engineering. Hearing no faults in the sound quality—even with a different style on every track—I’d say they did an excellent job.
I suspect some listeners will be tempted to assign “sweet” and “gnarly” gender roles to Phoenix and Phillip, respectively, but I think the EP’s name is probably just a reference to their genre-defying music—what they describe on their website as “swamp blues, hollers and stomps, ballads and breakdowns, shanties, jump blues and tearjerkers.” While their music can be sweet one minute and gnarly the next, it is often both at the same time.
Since “gnarly” has multiple meanings, I consulted a few sources and was pleased to find this is the No. 1 definition on UrbanDictionary.com: “Gnarly is when you’ve gone beyond radical, beyond extreme, it’s balls out danger, & or perfection, & or skill or all of that combined.”
Editing quibbles aside, that describes Roebuck’s music better than almost anything I could write. But I love an extended metaphor—not to mention a conclusion that comes full circle—so I’ll end with this: If “The Alpine Butterfly” was a signal that Phillip wasn’t quite sure where he was climbing, “Sweet Gnarly” is confirmation that he’s standing firmly atop a new peak—and that Phoenix is right there with him, clearly enjoying the journey.
I’m already excited to hear what’s next.
“Sweet Gnarly” is available in multiple formats at: philliproebuck.bandcamp.com. For tour dates and other information, visit: philliproebuck.com.