Album Review: Emily Scott Robinson – ‘Traveling Mercies’

The short version: The production can leave a little to be desired, and there’s some slight inconsistencies with this album, but ‘Traveling Mercies’ showcases a bright young talent in Emily Scott Robinson. 

  • Favorite tracks: “Shoshone Rose,” “Delta Line,” “Borrowed Rooms and Old Wood Floors,” “Run,” “Westward Bound”
  • Least favorite track: “White Hot Country Mess”
  • Rating: 7/10

The long version: It’s sometimes easy to forget that we as music fans are constant sources of inspiration for artists.

As an artist who lives full time in a motorhome and spends long stretches of time on the road, Emily Scott Robinson’s first studio release, Traveling Mercies is an album inspired not only by her story, but also the stories of random strangers she’s encountered while chasing down that dream.

While this is a concept usually unexplored for a debut album, Traveling Mercies is an album that catches you off guard in a good way. Robinson is a compelling lyricist, and while there’s a few elements to smooth out for future releases, Traveling Mercies is a solid first step for her as a whole.

Despite the split perspective of telling her stories and the stories of her fans, Robinson manages to connect it all together due to her insightful songwriting. Not every story on the album is necessarily original, but it’s the way Robinson approaches it along with the level of detail she brings to the table that’s the real selling point of the album. For example, leaving town is a fairly common trope in country and folk, but on opener “Westward Bound,” the focus is on Robinson leaving the big city to reconnect with her roots. It’s Robinson’s astute observations that give this project a greater weight to it and showcase a songwriter beyond her years. Watching small town America through various rest stops and diners as she literally travels west back home reminds her of why she’s making that journey, but it also gives a deeper meaning to that connection she has with home.

Between the level of detail she brings and her softer, fragile vocals, I’m reminded most of a mix between Lori McKenna and Karen Jonas. Her range isn’t the strongest, but this isn’t an album that tests that anyway. Instead, it tests her ability as an emotive interpreter, and there are some brutally sad tracks that test that well.

But going back to the lyricism, it’s that knack for keen details and cohesive storytelling that lends itself nicely to “Borrowed Rooms and Old Wood Floors,” a track where Robinson wishes for stability and a place to call home, a understandable and relatable perspective for a musician out on the road. Meanwhile, “The Dress” addresses a scenario where she was raped at 22, with her seeing that dress again only reminding her of the cloudy, unpleasant memories. “Run” goes further with the concept by showcasing a woman escaping from an abusive relationship.

As you can tell by now, Traveling Mercies is a very heavy, loaded listen, and that’s reflected in the production. Admittedly, there’s room for improvement in this department. I understand what they were going for in terms of mood. The softer acoustics with hints of pedal steel, fiddle do lead to some intimate moments, but it also often finds itself settling into predictable mid-tempo acoustic numbers where the same color isn’t there. It’s meant to be an exhausting album, but certain tracks like the title track and “Borrowed Rooms and Old Wood Floors” could have afforded a little more color in the mix.

Of course, there’s moments that get it right too. “Shoshone Rose” works well as a revenge track with its faster paced acoustic riff, sinister violin and story of a woman looking to take back her land. The skittering, brighter acoustics of “Westward Bound” help to sell that wonder and the jubilation of finding one’s self again. Then there’s the minor acoustics and violin anchoring “Delta Line,” a heartbreaking track that recalls Brandy Clark’s “Since You’ve Gone To Heaven” in how the death of a family member affects everyone involved.

For as ambitious and daring as Traveling Mercies is though, certain tracks don’t work as well as they should. “Pie Song” tries to string together a metaphor of baking sweets as unrequited love, but it feels awkward in its approach and framing. “Ghost In Every Town” operates on a list style of writing, but the painted picture of vices we all use to cope with darker times still emanates a sentiment that resonates overall. “Better With Time” is the out of place love song that, while once again featuring excellent imagery, is still fairly corny.

Then there’s “White Hot Country Mess,” a track that’s at least true to its name. Robinson is a haunting, brutally honest vocalist, and that’s reflected best on the heartbreaking tracks like “Borrowed Rooms and Old Wood Floors” and the excellent “Delta Line.” Here, she tries to insert some levity, but she sounds awkward against the choppy hook, and there’s one line in particular about hashtags and Instagram that really should have been left out. “Overalls,” the sendoff to a life well lived, is the better moment of levity.

But again, this is a debut album. The foundation is incredibly solid, and with time, the execution will likely be even better. As it is, while Traveling Mercies may be just shy of greatness, it does showcase an incredibly talented artist who should be on more people’s radars. The songwriting is some of the best of the year so far, and Robinson’s vocal delivery gives many of these tracks a lived-in, authentic atmosphere, even to the stories that aren’t directly about her. Again, it’s a slow burn of an album, but if you give it a chance, Traveling Mercies just may be one of 2019’s most pleasant, unexpected surprises thus far.

(Light to decent 7/10)

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