Don Ross,
Robot Monster
(Narada, 2003)

Fingerstyle guitarist Don Ross lets loose with emphatically rhythmic pieces on Robot Monster. The impetus for these compositions was his wife's struggle with breast cancer. In some pieces, like the title track, he plays out his anger and grief. In others, he tries to find something to encourage himself and his two children to continue on after her death.

There's not much mellow fingerpicking here. Robot Monster has an energy more akin to rock, even though Ross plays acoustic guitar. The pieces can be fierce and ferocious. Sometimes he works a groove persistently enough to border on being repetitious. The album's B-movie title was chosen because it appealed to Ross's goofy sense of humor, but the musical drive on this album makes it a descriptive title.

Although the catalyst for many of these pieces was a tragedy, it is not a mournful album. Some tracks, like "It's Fun Being Lucky" and the jaunty "Bubble Radio," sound downright happy. When anger is present, it doesn't descend into bitterness; it provides a motor to drive the music through the hard times and on to a better place. Even quiet tracks like "Elevation Music" have a definite groove powering them. Although Ross has a drum track on some tunes ("Oh Baby" and "So Much Time"), he really is his own rhythm section. A lovely melodic piece is "Fader Jones," which shifts into a minor-key version of the melody shortly before the track's end. Ross's sense of humor can be seen in the ending of "So Much Time," which mimicks the skipping of a vinyl record: in a way, he stops time so there can be more of it.

There are some other musicians here (uncredited on my advance copy of the disc) but Ross alone gets a wall of sound out of his guitar with his frenetic playing. The twists and turns follow each other so fast that it's hard to grasp his technical skill. The technique doesn't get in the way of the music and its appealing sincerity, however.

All in all, this is one Robot Monster worth having around the house.

- Rambles
written by Jennifer Hanson
published 8 May 2004

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