New Hampshire singer-songwriter Sam Robbins expands his musical horizons on thoughtful sophomore release.
It’s hard to believe now that Berklee College of Music alumnus and 2021 Kerrville Folk Festival songwriting competition winner Sam Robbins started out as a teenage punk drummer in the early ‘00s. Acquiring a guitar and Bob Dylan’s 2004 autobiography ‘Chronicles, Volume 1’ changed that trajectory.
Robbins had already released an EP before he graduated from high school in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, a town he described for ‘Music Mecca’ as “a coastal fishing kind of town in southern New Hampshire. Basically, it’s peak New England. Lobsters, Fall leaves, etc. There was a great arts scene in Portsmouth, and a great little acoustic music scene.” While a senior at Berklee in 2018, the tall, fresh-faced young artist auditioned for that ritual humiliation known as ‘The Voice.’ Although Adam Lambert liked Robbins, he was ultimately not chosen to advance on the show. An outrage.
On ‘The Voice’ Robbins was described as a “young James Taylor,” even though his bio also likened his music to John Denver and Neil Young. On ‘Bigger Than In Between,’ the follow-up to his 2021 debut ‘Finally Feeling Young,’ he surpasses that somewhat simplistic description and even name-drops the album ‘Sweet Baby James’ on ‘Hard To Hate,’ during a story about a pre-gig conversation with a scary-looking Hell’s Angel who turned out to be a James Taylor fan.
‘Bigger Than In Between’ is a mid-twenties Robbins examining unvarnished reality and truth without belligerence or Taylor’s subtle, barely concealed bitterness. ‘Hard to Hate’ is the opposite of tough-guy fronting: a warm reminder about giving individuals a chance in real, offline life, not holding animosity toward vast swaths of the population one has never met in person. Assisting him on the album at Skinny Elephant Recording in Nashville were Ruston Kelly’s guitarist Juan Solorzano on electric guitar, Miranda Lambert’s bass player Michael Rinney, and Neilson Hubbard, who produced the album and played drums. Robbins’ voice and acoustic guitar playing are not lost among the extra backing musicians.
The lead single ‘Reverence,’ more bluesy rock than indie folk, is a positive assessment of things and people in his life that he cherishes. The title track was recorded live in one take and features excellent vocals by Halley Neal, also his girlfriend, who sings backup throughout the album. Robbins looks back lovingly on his childhood and adolescence on ‘All I Know’ and ‘Some Things Never Change.’ On ‘Wouldn’t Change A Thing’ he faces down a quarter-life crisis, afraid of being just another guitar-playing white guy, and already past his prime at twenty-five, thanks to Western culture’s obsession with youth. Of course, this syndrome is exemplified and abetted by semi-pornographic ‘Rolling Stone’ covers, which get a rueful mention. “As if chasing after youth isn’t just a lifetime of mourning,” he sings. “But now I see that it’s all bullshit / And nobody knows what they’re doin’.”
‘Easy to Blame’ stands up for the working class frequently demonized by the political elites on both sides of the Atlantic. ‘Just One Cronkite’ skewers information overload and contrasts it with the days of revered American nightly news anchor Walter Cronkite, who retired almost twenty years before Robbins was born.
While most of the album is folk, Robbins has not yet solidified any one musical path. He wants to tell you what’s on his mind, how he feels about his girlfriend, community, current events, and his old beat-up guitar. He also wants to rock out with harder edged songs. Despite the competitive crowdedness of Nashville, Robbins is well on his way toward establishing his long-term reputation as a talented songwriter.