[LUSH POP] Chris Robley has just left a soup kitchen.
OK, so the young folk-rocker isn't so hard up that he's forced to dine in meal halls. Employed full time with online music store and distribution company CD Baby, happily married and drug and drama free, Robley may be one of the squeakiest-clean indie kids in town. And the soup kitchen in question is back in Robley's home state of Rhode Island, where he was serving up meals as a volunteer on a recent visit. But his music—frequently veering into the dark alleys and clogged-up corners of the heart—is another matter.
I first met 29-year-old Robley—short, stocky, on the shy side—at a mutual friend's birthday party thrown by local performance star Holcombe Waller (at Waller's Southeast side performance space-loft, no less). And though he exhibited all the superficial signs of a Portland hipster—scruffy beard, hip eyewear, plaid shirt—he didn't pose or get too ironic. Conversation was easy, unforced; he didn't brag. He dropped easygoing words like "awesome" and "chill."
Robley's songs are like that, too. On his sophomore album, The Drunken Dance of Modern Man in Love (Cutthroat Pop), Robley delivers well-deep sad songs deserving of the record's title in his plangent, smoke-hazy tenor. On "Centaurea," his pained whisper ekes out a pitiful refrain—"Save me, save me/ Nature means nothing to man"—enveloped in a shimmer of strings. And he's ably abetted by some of Portland's better folk-poppers—John Stewart (drums/percussion) and Rachel Taylor Brown (vocals/piano) among them.
Though Robley (who calls his musical collective the Fear of Heights) credits Randy Newman, Joanna Newsom and Harry Nilsson as early influences, he also includes a few classical composers: He nods to the "fucked-up rhythm stuff" of Stravinsky and great tune-writing of Tchaikovsky. "By the late 1800s they figured out the whole great melody thing," Robley says, "without it being so mathematical." Listen to Robley's "Little Love Affairs," a dizzy, happy-pop haze of a song, and you'll hear just that type of great tune-writing.
Robley says he's never had trouble getting connected to the music scene here, but he's also suspicious of all the hype surrounding it. He even goes so far as to suggest (gasp) that Portland may have too many indie rock-pop bands: "I have a love/hate thing with Portland," Robley says. "The music scene has become a little homogenous—everyone's got their own head buried in their thing. There's so much music being made that it's almost like wallpaper."
Though Robley's loath to point out his own music's singularity, he's also proud of his work—as he should be. If Robley continues to dole out well-crafted, attractive tunes like those on The Drunken Dance, fans may well be asking for seconds.
Robley & the Fear of Heights celebrate the release of The Drunken Dance of Modern Man In Love Friday, Nov. 9, with Fernando and Leviethan at Berbati's. 9 pm. $8. 21+.