In August 2011, he released his debut album, Big Bells and Dime Songs, which featured what can best be described as country blues. It was very much a man and his guitar — stark, singular and sparse.
This time out, Roberts enlisted the help of Mark Nevers (Lambchop) as producer and recorded the songs in Nashville. Then he turned them over to the capable hands of Kyle Spence (Harvey Milk) for mixing. The Iron Gates At Throop And Newport was released on Thrill Jockey in March 2012.
As much as Big Bells And Dime Songs worked, Iron Gates works harder.
The newly completed album is a stronger, more rounded album that includes fuller arrangements and seriously improved songwriting (not that Roberts’s songs were ever weak). He is also joined by a host of guest players adding drums, harmonica, mandolin, and fiddle, which only serves to enhance his lyrics and plainspoken delivery.
The songs sound like he wrote them on the road, but he didn't. This batch of songs was written while Roberts was still holed up in Brooklyn. You might never know it unless someone told you because heartbreak doesn't have boundaries.
"The first record I made has a very homeless or Wild West feel to it and this new one is filled with addresses and luxuries,” explains Roberts. “It's a rags to riches story about family and love and faith, where the first one was about not having that stuff. This album is about how hard that stuff is."
The restless Roberts shows that he may have been burned in the past, but he’s still hopeful. He has always been someone to look for the good. The next best thing could be just around the corner.
His Song is easily the strongest cut on the album. It carries a true band sound with lyrics that explore religion and the pain that sometimes comes with it. There’s a great guitar solo and a catchy chorus.
Second Place Blues is different. Emily Sundblad comes in later in the track to accompany his plain lyrics, making it an easy favorite. But Roberts can pull it off on his own too, with nothing more than himself and a guitar in the driveway.
It doesn’t get much more real and organic than that. It's who Roberts really is and how he feels most comfortable. Even Spree Wheels, which shows a much more confident Roberts accompanied by Sundblad, can be described as sparse and gritty. What makes the song pop all the more is the nice acoustic guitar and added ace fiddle work by the talented (and in demand) Billy Contreras, who has recorded and/or toured with the likes of Hank Williams III and George Jones.
Another track at the top of the play list is I Don’t Want You Anymore, which presents as if it were written and played as a confessional. Meanwhile, Old Fashioned Woman keeps pace with its solid bass work.
It also alludes to something else. If anything, support always gives Roberts an added boost. And I think that's why The Iron Gates has a more pleasing sound than his first album. Last year, plenty of people noticed the same thing when he performed All American with Harvey Milk at the Union Pool in Brooklyn.
It's pretty certain Roberts grew up listening to bluegrass, and those early influences have stayed with him to this day. His songs are uncomplicated. And he manages to draw his audience and listeners in as if you're watching his struggles unfold, right there. You nod your head in understanding.
The Iron Gates At Throop And Newport Rings 5.8 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.
Roberts is unpretentious and laid back, always content to ramble and travel. He is happy to sing his songs for people who can appreciate and relate to personal struggles.
The Iron Gates At Throop And Newport is on iTunes. You can also find Iron Gates at Barnes & Noble. You can download or order The Iron Gates at Throop and Newport from Amazon.
Interestingly enough, The Iron Gates At Throop and Newport is named after actual streets in Brooklyn. I can't help but wonder if Roberts left a piece of his heart there before moving on. The singer heads out to Europe in mid April for a series of shows in Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland, Italy, France and the UK. He will be back in Brooklyn on May 4.