When Robert Chaney, a Floridian musician, decided to move to London a few years back he didn’t have any contacts so he figured he’d check out the open mic scene. As he tells the story an early appearance led to him coming to the attention of producer Ken Brake and together the pair of them set out to make Cracked Picture Frames. It’s a bold album, Chaney, armed only with acoustic guitar and his lonesome voice, delivers a stark and startling effort that fits into the solo, haunted singer/songwriter tradition. The quality of the songs and his immaculate delivery however elevate the album above its peers, head and shoulders above in fact as song after song stuns the listener. While Chaney dips into Southern Gothic, Greenwich Village folk, Texan troubadour and delta blues styles on various numbers he stamps his authority all over the album.
His lyrics command attention be it telling blood stained tales such as on The Ballad Of Edward And Lisa or waxing poetically on the magnificent Does Your Love Pay Out In Full, a song that would sit very comfortably on Dylan’s Blood On The Tracks. Dylan and Townes Van Zandt might be names that come to mind when listening to the disc but to these ears, Cracked Picture Frames recalls the desolate howl of the first Loudon Wainwright album and the bleak landscapes that can be evoked by Eef Berzely from time to time. While there’s a hint of The Handsome Family’s grotesquery in some of the words the grim humour is absent, instead Chaney is bleak, he observes and reports with a poet’s mind. So we get a story of a child blinded by his religiously delusional aunt, a Mexican school bus crash, domestic violence, a forlorn lover wanting to patch up a broken relationship. On what might be the most arresting song on the album, The Cyclist, Chaney is as naked as Dylan was on his first albums, recalling the likes of the Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll as he narrates a mini movie that is noirish in the extreme as the protagonist, involved in a love tryst with his brother’s wife ends up paying for a crime she commits instead of revealing his betrayal. A nice update on that old standard Long Black Veil, it deserves to be heard.
Cracked Picture Frames is a wonderful album, proof, if needed, that one man and his guitar can be riveting as it paints pictures in the mind. His voice, a cracked crooner on the drawn out words of Corazones Amarillos, urgent on the bluesy Black Eyed Susan draws you in and the guitar work is simple but beguiling. One imagines that live, an audience would listen, hushed, to these meditations, in the meantime the album more than suffices.