Kenny Roby clearly remembers Justin Faircloth of Charlotte's Houston Brothers saying that when the two first talked about working together on Roby's fourth post-6 String Drag album, The Mercy Filter. It was primal music to Roby's ears. "Neither of us have this idea that you're supposed to be gazing at your shoes when you're doing art," Roby explains. "We're of the school that you're supposed to beat your chest when you're rocking out."
Mission statement defined, Roby traveled to Cougar Camp Studio in Charlotte to record with Faircloth, drummer David Kim, Two Dollar Pistol mates Scott McCall (who played on Roby's excellent 2002 release Rather Not Know) and Mark O'Brien and a few other players. There they fortified the standard Rock 'n' Roll five-piece with drum loops, glockenspiels, creative percussion, synthesizers and most anything else within reach, creating something that often zigged when the roots rock that Roby had been associated with for the past decade might have zagged. His music has always had a groove, but The Mercy Filter's is of a noticeably different flavor.
In the song "Jesus Tambourine" from his Mercury's Blues album, Roby sings--tongue mostly in cheek, mind you--"I'm just a rock singer." So what is he now, five years, a couple more albums, and some loops and synths down the road? "I'm a folk singer, I'm a rock singer, I'm a pop singer, I'm a country singer. I don't know. We're in trouble when we start defining it," offers Roby. "I guess, in a way, for a lot of [The Mercy Filter], I was kind of doing something new by going to something old."
For Roby, that meant retapping into bands such as Bad Brains (check out the rhythm and jolt of "Concentration") as well as old friends Neil Young and Bob Dylan. "Bein' Alone" was originally done, according to Roby, "Clash fast," then as a Marvin Gaye/Motown style song, and then in Beatles mode, before ending up a melding of all those things. "That song's a good representation of the whole record, how there was just this thing that happened," he says. "There was a lot of collaborating. I tried not to come in with too many black and white ideas of how the songs were going to be." The base ingredients for several of the songs, "Concentration" included, was a raw melody and lyrics, with the arrangements then created on the fly with the core band sitting on the front porch of the studio. As Roby puts it, "We were always open to whatever worked. We did not have any expectations of how a song had to sound."
Fleshing out much of The Mercy Filter musically might have been a team effort, but the words on it feel deeply personal. Passing through the 13 songs are despair, disease and decay countered by relief, recovery and rebirth (it's not for nothing that there's a song titled "New Day"). There are breakups and breakdowns, and searches for identity, strength and maybe even some form of salvation. In other words, it's pretty much the "Congratulations, you're a human being" package, putting on display the whole holy mess implied by that.
Or, in Roby's words, a reflection of where he is in his life right now. "I've decided that if I wrote a record today it'd be called St. Bastard. To kind of get in the middle: I'm not all good, and I'm not all bad. The world is not all good, and the world is not all bad," he says. "It's just to kind of be satisfied with 'Hey, I'm all these things, and the world is all these things.'" Roby is quick to acknowledge that most of the songs on the album are about him, a few steps away from the character development of much of his previous work. "A lot happened in the last couple of years, and just a lot of triggers that caused me to write these songs." With that in mind, one of the most telling lines is the album's very first: "I don't know where I'm goin'/But I know where I've been."
Kenny Roby's CD release show for The Mercy Filter, with special guests the Countdown Quartet, is at The Pour House on Jan. 20. Doors at 8 p.m. and music at 10 p.m. Tickets are $6.