Living off the Land
For a man brazen enough to command the stage all by his lonesome, Nick Robin sure seems demure. Perhaps he comes from the school of thought that "self conquers all" and "composure is possible," because the authenticity in his delivery conveys a conviction to shed guise and embrace self-display; he seeks not the spotlight, but artistic autonomy.
Robin, a Twin Cities transplant from North Dakota, cut his teeth in the late '90s fronting a band called Podlife (later renamed Podland) in the same Eclipse Records scene as bands like Malachi Constant and Superhopper. Although he now focuses most of his musical energy on his solo work, he also plays bass in a band called the Field, and has been known to cavort with Grand Marais's own Crew Jones, quite possibly the lower 48's northernmost rap act. Having experienced life as a frontman as well as a player, Robin seems more comfortable as a songwriter when he doesn't have to deal with the confines of other personalities.
Back from the Dead, Robin's solo debut, caught some flack for sounding more like an "early years" compilation than a distilled and unified vision from a burgeoning songwriter, a valid criticism even if "Dudes," the oddball standout, was among the album's most memorable tracks. As a follow-up, Living off the Land improves greatly on production quality and presents a much more focused musical direction.
At a cafe near the University of Minnesota, Robin discussed his new CD, saying, "The first release was a collection of home recordings. But Living off the Land is really a record with a theme. Have you ever heard Mike Watt's Contemplating the Engine Room? He makes a connection between himself as a bass player and his dad working in Navy ships in the engine room. I wanted to do that, with my dad being a farmer and me making music."
With this theme in mind, Robin headed to Third Ear Recording—largely to capitalize on the tech-head's trove of instruments and recording gear that the studio boasts. "I went there for all the stuff I've never played with," he said. Making good use of the tools available, Robin spent months working on the recordings, ultimately creating an album that ventures far outside the limitations of the solo acoustic performer. Living off the Land is a record that sounds like it came from a band. But with the exception of drum work by Steven Yasgar, the album is pretty much all Robin, who tackles vocals, guitars, bass, piano, keyboards, accordion, harmonica, and percussion.
Living off the Land may be more focused than Robin's first record, but it still displays a satisfying range. Robin's vision stems from a folk and roots foundation but reaches outward toward dark alternative pop. "1,000 Years of Ashes" opens with a howling harmonica reminiscent of an oncoming steam engine, then unfolds into a classic-sounding stomper with heavy traces of Neil Young and the Brian Jonestown Massacre. It's a far cry from the reflective melancholy on the piano-based title track or the patient diminuendo of "Oh Addie (I Surrender)," the album's closer. Perhaps the term "focused" carries an unwanted connotation—variety is not limited by theme on Living off the Land, just contextualized by a single, unaltered vision, a practical impossibility for collaborative ventures. Strong and placid, this record is an aural document of an artist who trusts his own eyes.