Album Review – Emily Scott Robinson’s “American Siren”

The inequity between those that deserve the attention of the wide masses, and those that enjoy the attention of the wide masses is the eternal struggle at the heart of American music. And for the last few years, there may have not been a better representation of the unjust imbalance in this equation than the lack of attention being paid to singer and songwriter Emily Scott Robinson, both as a singer, and as a songwriter at the apex of these disciplines.

That’s beginning to change though, with Robinson being picked up by John Prine’s Oh Boy Records, and the immediate recognition that brings from the Americana world. Her protracted, but eventual rise is chronicled in the new song “Cheap Seats,” which preceded, and anchors her new record, the striking and emotionally involved American Siren.

From a certain perspective, many of the songs of American Siren fall within the standard American fare of thematic subject matter. There’s a song about a soldier returning from Afghanistan in “Hometown Hero,” there’s a song reminiscing on a summer love affair in “Lightning in a Bottle,” and there’s a song on the wisdom of age in “Things You Learn The Hard Way.”

On numerous occasions, Emily Scott Robinson also broaches the disillusionment with the American Dream, and the move towards agnosticism, which is sort of its own American music cliché, especially in the Americana realm. Numerous songs broach this theme specifically, including “If Trouble Comes A Lookin” about infidelity and a priest, and later “Let ‘Em Burn” and “Every Day in Faith,” which define the emotional depth of this work.

But Emily Scott Robinson is just composing on such elevated wavelengths of articulative insight and poetic delivery, her music is incapable of comparing to contemporaries or falling into platitude, forcing you to draw correlations with vaunted songwriting legends of the past as peers. She is undoubtedly one of the premier musical scribes of our time, turning what might be stereotypical country themes into emotionally stirring moments.

American Siren is an entangled, and at times, a somewhat unusual listening experience. The song “Cheap Seats” is a great and full-bodied country song with steel guitar, fiddle and the whole bit, but it’s a sonic outlier, and starkly so, on an album where cello often sets the musical palette for a song, making the experience unique and riveting to the ear, however understated many of the arrangements might be.

Laying underneath, and sometimes unspoken or hidden in allegory isn’t just a quiet desperation, but a bubbling rage. “Let ‘Em Burn” might be a solo piano ballad, but it has all the emotional outcry of a heavy metal song. Same goes for “Every Day in Faith.” One might mistake this album for a mostly religious work without unweaving its threads.

But the album isn’t all emotional roiling. Emily Scott Robinson might be one of the best singers in this era in roots music, from her warble and the way her voice naturally captures the emotion of a story, to the way you can actually hear a smile in her voice, underscored most perceptibly in the song “Things You Learn The Hard Way.”

And even though the austere arrangements may throw you off the scent somewhat, American Siren really is a country album thematically, and this is emphasized by the ending song, the acoustic and traditional “Old North State.”

There’s a lot happening on this record, and it may be one of those that we’re unable to fully grasp or measure until weeks or months have past. Just like all great songwriters, Emily Scott Robinson has enveloped the sentiments she wants to convey, and the lessons she wants to teach in layering and nuance. It takes time to peel back the layers of an onion, and often, many tears. Same goes for the elaborate American Siren.


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