On paper, Tim Robbins ought to enjoy one of the more natural actor-to-singer transitions. His late father was a bona fide folkie and had a No. 1 hit in 1961 as a member of the Highwaymen. As a leading man, Robbins sang throughout a largely musical film, with 1992’s satirical “Bob Roberts.”
His influences, like his intentions, are in all the right places, with Bruce Springsteen at the top of the list. What’s not to work?
But on paper, you can’t hear Robbins sing. And his voice, as heard on his debut album, “Tim Robbins and the Rogues Gallery Band,” is not something a plurality of listeners will find lovely to behold.
How could he have carried “Bob Roberts” and have such obvious struggles carrying a tune here? Maybe because that character was a strident blowhard, which turns out to have been an easier style to pull off than the beauty and delicacy that Robbins, to his credit, is going for here.
The most surprising thing, for an actor who’s essayed so many indelible characters, is how little character he brings to these vocals, technique aside. As strong as some of Robbins’ instincts are, his is a set of chops built for speaking roles.
That said, just about everything about “Tim Robbins and the Rogues Gallery Band” is bloody fantastic … except for Robbins. If you can give the album enough listens to grow accustomed to the frontman’s often tortured, occasionally torturing role — a big "if," for most listeners — the brilliance of the largely acoustic accompaniment put together by famed producer Hal Willner becomes even more apparent.
The spooky, lilting, occasionally raucous arrangements elevate Robbins’ self-penned material to a position it sometimes independently merits and sometimes doesn’t. If the actor had abandoned the auteur theory and cast someone else as frontperson, the music would be altogether listenable, even if there’d be no getting around some of Robbins’ lyrical groaners.
And there are quite a few. The opener, “Book of Josie,” is a Gnostic gospels-inspired secular veneration of a Mary Magdalene-type figure, even though Mary is mysteriously renamed for a Steely Dan character here. “The tenderness of a woman’s touch, the healing in her kiss/Was lost by men too dead to know the holiness of this,” Robbins croons, promoting the idea that behind every great deity, there’s a greater woman.
“Time to Kill” will provide some bait for Robbins’ enduring right-wing critics, telling the story of a Colorado soldier haunted by the killing of civilian youths. “I was doing my job, I thought they were terrorists,” Robbins moans. “You don’t understand, you don’t understand/That I love kids, I love kids, I love kids, I love kids…”
He’s going for something deeply disturbing and primal over Willner’s slide-guitar bed, with mumbled singing that sounds possibly improvised. A song this risky was bound to provide either the album’s most emotional payoff or its most eyeroll-inviting moment. The former level of triumph remains yet outside his novice grasp.
At least you can’t accuse him of going for low-hanging fruit, á là, say, Kevin Costner’s wholly unambitious musical straining. The Springsteen influence doesn’t come in the form of aping the Boss’ good-time efforts, but rather taking cues from the dark austerity of “Devils & Dust” and livelier Americana of “We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions.”
The latter approach informs a couple of Bruce-meets-Shane-McGowan numbers: the sprightly, 6/8 romp “You’re My Dare” and the bellowing but catchy “Queen of My Dreams.” These are the album’s two most appealing numbers, thanks to his decent knack for melody, and in spite of — or even because of — the Irish-American affectations.
Anyone looking for clues about Robbins' breakup with Susan Sarandon, meanwhile, is barking up the wrong confessional tree here. Talking to a journalist about the paucity of autobiographical elements, Robbins said, "I think I'm a better writer than that." Better than Joni Mitchell and anyone else who ever mined her own life for material? Hard for him to imagine, perhaps, but his own relationships might've provided even better song fodder than Elaine Pagels and modern-day My Lai massacres after all.
Hearts are all in correct places here, so there’s no joy in trotting out the dreaded “vanity effort” descriptor for anyone coming to the album without a preexisting ideological condition.
If only “Tim Robbins and the Rogues Gallery Band” came in an all-Rogues Gallery edition, where Willner’s gorgeous trumpets, saxes, standup basses, brushed snares, and theremins wouldn’t have to compete with the sound of Robbins trying to literally find his voice.