I and Ear
nlike Nabokov as memoirist, Robbie Lee wants his memory to rest. Rather than gathering a past and assembling a history, Lee works through fracture, through gaps and erratic cracks of truth. His debut album, Sleep, Memory turns pop and personal history into a sporadic yet precise bricolage of sounds and images. The result shows an ambitious talent at work and nearly succeeds, despite occasionally feeling like a first novel.
Lee splits his album into three parts, with the first having the simplest feel, drawing on psyche- and country-folk. Lee looks back in order to move forward, or at least to catch up, but there's no narrative string here. The first six tracks are bounces and breaks, whether in the repetition of words ("Star Star Star") or in the fleeting hold on a woodpecker ("Pileated"). The shifts lead to both memory and nostalgia, creating a blend that's only valuable if you refuse to sort out the difference. This first section of the disc isn't fully satisfying, but it's a nice formal introduction to the album's later complexities.
The album's middle contains two tracks that show the kind of breakdown that draws Lee's attention. "Comes Morning" and "Summer Breeze, Bombs Away" sound like two facets of a third, Platonic song (most likely David Kilgour's "Today Is Gonna Be Mine," which is probably the closest recorded pop has come to its ideal form). The first track builds on a simple piano plod and ends with the repetition of an assertive but concerned "I know." "Summer Breeze" opens with a brighter, acoustic guitar sound and a happier turn on "I know," but turns atonal and clattery while turning back to its predecessor's concern with "one last chance." Lee hints at the possibility of pop's emotional ascension, but imposes his own limits by dismantling his melody and structure. As the song decays, the earlier "I know" is replaced with an "I think," revealing the loss of knowledge as things fall apart.
After a second interlude, the album achieves its fullest disintegration, albeit to indeterminate result. That indeterminacy might be part of Lee's intention, but he relies too heavily on out-of-tune plucking and anti-mood effects. These tracks, such as "Highway Suite pt. 3" (there doesn't seem to be a part one or two) call attention to the gaps between lullabies, to the fragile moments in which dream-reality finds itself broken into by nasty plucking. The effort results only in a depiction of the art-as-art, rejecting memory (aside from contextual needs) in favor of aesthetic posturing and the forgetting of recent experimentalism with which he should be in conversation (such as the No-Neck Blues Band).
Lee's album doesn't fail, primarily because it offers enough complexities to stay rewarding on multiple visits. He does fail to fulfill his novel ambitions; he lacks the sonic reach to force new considerations on his listener and the captivating songs to give the experiments more meaning. If he doesn't disconcert like NNCK, he also doesn't hold like Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Despite the disc's problems, Lee maintains a singular drive while embracing his own idiosyncrasies, and that theoretical and artistic expression elevates the album even when (and in part because) it feels like a rough draft of something better.