The Phantom Tollbooth
February 1999 Pick of the Month

Earthside Down
Artist: Robert Deeble
Label: Jackson-Rubio
Time: 11 tracks (12 songs) / 56:02minutes

For most of the decade now, Robert Deeble's ambient, acoustic, alternative folk has lulled plenty of late-night coffee-shop goers into that smoky philosophical realm of deep and strange thought. His first album under the Days Like These moniker garnered critical praise a few years back, but not much else. Since then he's been playing live a lot, most recently with his band opening for Vigilantes of Love and solo in New Zealand. Now he comes shuffling back with a much-anticipated sophomore album, Earthside Down, that pretty much sticks to familiar territory.

Deeble has a deep and breathy, cracked-earth voice, kind of a laid-back mix of Dylan, Lou Reed, and a three-o'clock-in-the-morning whispering Bono. He seems to sing lower than before, with occasional female vocals drifting in and out of the background on a track or two. The instrumentation remains the same: delicate acoustic picking, deep cello vibrations, sparse percussion, and stand-up bass that hums and thumps wonderfully in the speakers. Ambient drum loops are a new addition on several tracks, and for the most part they bring a welcome change in atmosphere without destroying the organic nature of Deeble's music. Stephen Hodges (drummer for Tom Waits, Mike Watt) and Anthony Arvisu return as producers extraordinaire.  You really need a good pair of headphones to soak in the layer upon layer of eclectic sounds in the mix. Earthside Down is heaven for the patient connoisseur of textures, but agonizing sameness and boredom for the easily sleepy.

The prerelease has no lyric sheet so it's hard to make sense of Deeble's poetry, but you can be sure it's all about love and life and loss from a believer who's been around the emotional block. Cool phrases like "Jesus is your friend, when you're still a child" and "Say dear friend, faith in you knows no end" echo in my ears long after the hearing. The title track is the most accessible song, with a recognizable chorus of "just like heaven" backed by a straight-forward and strong bass/drum rhythm. Most of the album, though, is for lovers of mumbled and personal but beautiful poetry. If you have any doubt as to your affection for such art, you might want to stay away. Otherwise, pour some coffee and relax with Earthside Down.

By Josh Spencer     (1/12/99)

It was his support slot with Vigilantes of Love last year which established Robert Deeble in my mind, but this album shows that there is a lot more to this man than a promising opening artist. The sound is restrained and somewhat foreboding in feel, similar in a way to some of Dan Donovan's solowork; but  it's unlikely that either of these musicians is more than passingly familiar with the other's work.

Deeble uses his acoustic guitar in an unusual way to build up atmosphere by meeting arpeggios and finger-picking with a sparing touch. The texture is built up with tasteful bass and cello and the odd drum loop, leaving the feeling of something mystic and artful without being out of touch to the listener. Deeble's vocals only add to this feeling, registering low in the male range and occasionally slipping into half-mumbled, half-spoken-word territory.

The lyrics are at times difficult to make out, but always seem appropriate to the music, meandering through life, love, and faith, wrapping the three together in words. This section from "Peter and the Lion" is representative of much of the album:

There are some songs on here which are more immediate than others. Listeners may be familiar with "Two Statues" from the WeatherVane Records compilation album released last year and that is a case in point, but only the most liberal of radio shows would play this material. But there's more to artful music than radio accessibility. This album demonstrates that loud and clear.

By James Stewart (1/22/99)

Zzzzzzzzzzzz...wake up! It's time for Earthside Down. A worthy successor to 1994's Days Like These, Deeble's latest is a mighty nice mix of after midnight music and vocal mumblings on metaphysical musings. Shuffling beats and ambling bass underlay laid-back guitar licks and lethargic vocals reminiscent of a cross between a stateside Robyn Hitchcock and Bono employing his lazy, soulful side. In fact, this batch of positively dreamy numbers is very much like an entire album of "(If You Wear That) Velvet Dress" songs in tone and pace. Yet the overall result is more engaging than the mere background music for which it might be mistaken. "Junkyard" features fabulous, nearly-flamenco style guitar, other more psychedelic songs diverge to India and back via the Beatles, and "Billboards" is awash with witty wordplay. Although artistic, beautiful and interesting, this album is not recommended road-trip listening if you need to fend off a nap. But Earthside Down gets punchier as it goes, finishing with many delightful, slightly more upbeat tracks. If you snooze, you really will lose.

Steven Stuart Baldwin 7/14/99