By Eleni P. Austin

As a card-carrying Music Nerd, I got my start reading liner notes in the late ‘60s (you’d be surprised what kind of information can be gleaned from the back of the Chipmunks A-Go-Go record cover). I was seven when an older cousin gave me my first “grown-up” album, James Taylor’s Sweet Baby James. From then on, I obsessively read all of it, absorbing musicians’ names, instruments (exactly what was a Fender Rhodes?) recording studios, labels and finally, producers.

Fast-forward to the early ‘80s, I was in the nascent throes of what would become a life-long love affair with Elvis Costello. My first introduction to his pal, T-Bone Burnett, was when he opened for a solo Elvis show (sans his backing band, The Attractions), 40 years ago, May 1st. (I can practically tell you what I wore to the show, at L.A.’s much-beloved, long-gone Universal Amphitheater). T-Bone was a witty and engaging musician, so of course, I backtracked and got all his albums. A year or so down the line, he produced Elvis’ game-changing King Of America album. From then on, I bought pretty much anything T-Bone produced. From Los Lobos, the Bo-Deans and Sam Phillips, to Counting Crows, Gillian Welch and The Wallflowers and up through the soundtrack to O’ Brother Where Art Thou. Which is when it felt as though the rest of the world had caught on to his lean, unfussy production style.

I have that same passion for Luther Russell. I fell deeply in love with his music in 2018 (forgive me, Elvis), when I wrote about his expansive compilation, Selective Memories. Of course, I backtracked through his extensive oeuvre, from his solo stuff, his ‘90s band The Freewheelers, and his recent Pure Pop collaboration with ex-Big Star drummer Jody Stephens, as Those Pretty Wrongs. Predictably, I began digging into the artists he produced. Standouts included Noah And The Whale, Fernando Viciconte and Sarabeth Tucek. Now, he has produced Ned Roberts’ latest effort.


As Luther explains, about 15 years ago when he was living in New York, “I was looking on Youtube for Dylan stuff and found this kid in his dorm room playing Bob Dylan covers really well. I reached out and asked if he had any original music and he did. He began sending me the songs, when we had about 20, we got him in the studio and made his first album. The record immediately received heavy airplay on 6music (the BBC digital radio station that specializes in alternative music) and we were off and running.”

Ned Roberts picked up a guitar as a teen. Bob Dylan was an early influence. Learning Dylan songs like “As I Went Out One Morning” and “Don’t Think Twice,” motivated him to start writing his own songs. Initially, they were based on old, traditional folk melodies. He began haunting open mic nights around York, where he was attending school. He also started posting music to Youtube. Once he connected with Luther, he traveled to Los Angeles to record what would become his self-titled debut. It arrived in 2014, two more albums followed, 2017‘s Outside My Mind and 2020’s Dream Sweetheart. Luther handled production chores for both of those, as well Ned’s new album, Heavy Summer.

Both the opening track, “Play My Cards” and “Halfway From Reason” are bare-boned and unadorned, perhaps a nod to his dorm room beginnings. On the former, Ned’s vocals, equal parts honey and woodsmoke are cocooned by rippling acoustic arpeggios. Enigmatic lyrics quietly contemplate a sea change: “Play my cards right, get lost in the ice, red flowers bloom on a dusty wheel, take a late turn I can’t find.” Setting boundaries maintains the status quo, but is that enough: “So the lines that I’ve drawn that served me before the edges are worn.” In the end, he opts for happiness: “There through the storms and the tides, you brighten my skies, you’re there by my side.”

The latter attempts to navigate the rocky shoals of grief. Liquid acoustic notes ebb and flow as Ned’s vocals drift from a Sweet Baby James-ish croon to a keening falsetto. Plaintive lyrics walk the line between sense and sensibility: “Lend me some lines that trip from the tongue, spare me a thought for the loved ones we lost, try as I might, I’m just losing my mind.” Even as he attempts to deflect sadness, the melancholy chorus is suffused in sorrow: “Please say no, I’m halfway from reason, please say no, I’m already gone.”

Buoyant melodies and crisp arrangements go a long way in softening the lyrical blows. Take “Days Into Days.” strummy acoustic notes partner with rangy electric riff-age, agile bass lines and a rattle-trap beat. As the days stack up, spiky guitars shadow verses that seem to search for a potent panacea: “Take my records from the shelf, though the needle’s turned to rust, spinthem round and round, and through the crackles and the dust, I’ll take the white from the wind, take the red from the sky, blues from the rain and paint the wildest colors across my mind. Lush cor anglais and shimmery guitars hug the hairpin curves of the break, just before Ned delivers a final epiphany: “We all need illusions, a sense of serenity from the breaking dawn.”

Initially, “Down To The Edge” unfurls slowly, plangent acoustic chords wrap around loose-limbed bass and a thwocky beat. A recurring thread that weaves its way through this record, is Ned’s apparent kinship with the sea. Here, it pops up in the very first verse: “I’ve got a million different reasons and nothing much to do, just watch the alabaster on those rolling banks of blue, and think for a minute how to swim my way to you, I go down to the edge for you.” On the break, sinewy electric guitar approximates that thin wild mercury sound that feels so elusive and ecclesiastic. Rather than hedge his bets, it’s cards on the table time: “If you make me out a lover, you know I’ll do just the same, and talk to you in that soft simple way, and hold back the minutes before bursting of the day, to go down to the edge with you, just down to the edge with you.”

The best tracks here add new colors and textures to Ned’s sonic palette. On the wistful “Losing Sight” searching acoustic licks are wed to lowing bass lines and an insistent kick-drum beat. The languid arrangement neatly frames the anxious musings of a man adrift: “Don’t want to lie in the dark, want to live in the open, watch the turning of days into wisdom or none, the rise and the fall, I want to lie in your arms, with no sense and no thought, will it lessen the load, will it steady the course?” Even as the lyrics equivocate, the instrumentation cuts to the quick. A heavily delayed slide guitar solo takes flight between verses, offering up a chiaroscuro of sorts, a lithe reminder that we can soar even in the darkest times.

On “Songs Of Spring, sun-dappled acoustic guitars seem to signal the end of winter, and the return of love. But anticipation becomes disappointment when the lyrics offer up a contrite confession from a suitor “I’m so sorry for not playing it straight, I’ve been out of my mind for days and days.” Filigreed fretwork is matched by gossamer Mellotron on the break, but the pastoral pas de deux cannot assuage heartache: “She looks down upon him, but does not feel what she wanted to feel at all, ‘your words are pretty, they don’t mean a thing, they’ve lost all their meaning, ‘cross the water and the waves and the wind’.”

“Another Record ‘Round” attempts to outrun sadness. Jangly acoustic guitar connects with thrumming bass and a laid-back shufflin’ beat. When the world feels upside-down, solace can be found at the end of a stylus: “Maybe all there is to say has already been said, maybe all I’ve left to find, I’ve already found, maybe the breaking that I feel, I’ve already felt/I’m going to pick apart the roots, unravel the string, the sharp edge and the doubt, spin another record ‘round.” Phased and dusted slide guitar double-tracks, darting through the mix, splitting the difference between acrimony and ache. In the end, to paraphrase Iris DeMent, he lets the mystery be: “Maybe I’m just too high for getting high… maybe all that’s been done, I still carry on, maybe the sadness that I hold is always unknown, why should it matter now, how we can’t be made anew.”

Other interesting tracks include the hushed and halcyon “Morning Meets The Rain.” The record closes with the one-two punch of “Tomorrow In Time” and “The Breakers.” On “Tomorrow…” smoky harmonica washes over fluid bass lines, chiming acoustic guitars, vroom-y electric riffs and a kinetic pulse. Lyrics yearn for simpler times: “I want to find the place where nothing comes to pass, the stillness is the point of it, there’s nothing through the glass.” A reedy harmonica solo swoons on the break. In spite of the persistent sturm und drang, there’s still some comfort to be found: “Now I’m at the edge of seeing, I kick it up ‘round the bend, you sit there to the left of me, I want to hear that tape again.”

“The Breakers” is powered by woozy, Dylanesque harmonica and cascading guitar notes. A world-weary and tender cri de Coeur, it traverses oceans and mountains, by foot, by car and train, but the answer remains the same, what holds the world together is love and human connection: “I don’t want to come back down, lie with me and the stars fade out, don’t ride the rails without me, I’m waiting on the midnight train, the calm, the quiet astound me, all in the temper of the day.” It’s a contemplative finish to a great album.

While Ned handled vocals, guitar and harmonica, Jason Hiller played bass, David Ralicke added cor anglais and Sarabeth Tucek provided backing vocals. Luther is the album’s MVP, tackling guitar, drums and Mellotron. Heavy Summer conjures up antecedents like Nick Drake, James Taylor, Tim Buckley, David Gray, Jackson Browne, Ray Lamontagne, Gordon Lightfoot and of course the Bard of Hibbing. There’s definitely a throughline from London to Laurel Canyon.

My love for Luther led me to this album, but what sustains my interest, is Ned Roberts. His potent melodies coupled with thoughtful and introspective lyrics, are laced with a grace and gravitas that belies his years.