Chris Robley & the Fear of Heights | Movie Theatre Haiku

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Movie Theatre Haiku

by Chris Robley & the Fear of Heights

Cinematic Technicolor psychedelic undercover folk-porn POP-corn for pure pop people.
Genre: Pop: Psychedelic Pop
Release Date: 

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1. A Memory Lost at Sea
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2. User-Friendly Guide to Change
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3. My Life in Film Festivals (haiku #1)
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4. Solipsist in Love
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5. Atheist's Prayer
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6. Premiere
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7. The Late, Great Age of Paper (haiku #2)
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8. Concrete & Nails
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9. Glass Reich
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10. Baltimore Fugitives Buried in Brownsville, TX
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11. Permanent Fixture of Regret
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12. Waltz for Angelika Dittrich
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ABOUT THIS ALBUM


Album Notes
Portland busy-boy Chris Robley (the "Stephen King of Indie-Pop") has previously released 2 critically lauded solo albums, "this is the" and "the drunken dance of modern man in love," both produced by Adam Selzer (M. Ward, The Decemberists, Laura Gibson). His third, "Movie Theatre Haiku" was produced with the help of Portland audio-fiends Mike Coykendall, Jeff Stuart Saltzman, and Rob Stroup.

The album upholds Robley's reputation for writing story-songs about characters that find themselves in heartbreak and despair. But "Movie Theatre Haiku" also finds him taking his trademark blend of fractured folk and dark, psychedelic indie-pop into more ambitious orchestral and electronic territory.

"[It is an] album about measuring distances in an over-stimulated world where all our standard compasses have gone spinning out of control. Distances between old lovers, between the living and the dead, between your ambitions and your limitations, between the world you wish for and the world that is, between a performer and audience, between God and mankind, between here and home," explains Robley.

"Traditionally, a haiku poem would be a tiny, seemingly insignificant observation about the natural world that unfolds into an epiphany concerning the larger mysteries of life," he continues. "I thought it was a funny notion to put a poet in an environment like a movie theatre that demands nothing of his imagination, that forces its own hyperactive images and observations onto him, and then ask him to write a haiku, one that would most likely begin with a wide angle on the world and shrink, in the end, to something constricted and banal.

"The characters in each of the songs on 'Movie Theatre Haiku¹ are lost in this kind of confined space, fumbling in the darkness to feel the four walls closing in on them. They must measure distances in a shrinking world, and find a way out."

Touring often, Robley performs his eclectic and hyper-literate psych-folk-indie-pop compositions with backing band The Fear of Heights, a sheets-of-sound arkestra of doom that swings and swells in size from 4 to 11 members including horns, flutes, and strings.

He also fronts the agit-prop-prog-pop outfit THE SORT OFs whose much praised 2006 debut "Anxiety on Parade" detailed the human waste of the post-modern political landscape.

In his spare time he's been known to fill the role of multi-instrumentalist with The Imprints, Norfolk & Western, and Rachel Taylor Brown. He's also appeared as a session player on over a dozen releases and recently produced Little Beirut's sophomore effort "High Dive". He enjoys full contact banking, circuit bending, and watching Battlestar Galactica with his wife Kristiana. Much to their dismay, their cat Fellini is a big fan of Jason Mraz.


Reviews


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Willamette Week

Smart Pop
After being impressed with Chris Robley’s 2005 debut, This Is The, and by his work with sometime band the Sort-Ofs and other projects, I took last year’s terrific baroque-pop album, The Drunken Dance of Modern Man in Love, to be something close to the full flowering of his songwriting and production gifts. This paper duly dubbed it one of 2007’s finest local discs.

With Movie Theatre Haiku—his first release sharing billing with his support band, the Fear of Heights—Robley’s only gotten better: more confident both vocally and in the realization of his seemingly endless stream of musical and production ideas, from dissonant horn sections to folktronica instrumentals. More than ever before, Robley audibly allows the arranging and recording process to intervene in his songwriting itself. And he might also be feeling even more comfortable with unedited self-expression, if the nakedly misanthropic sentiments that crop up more frequently in this album’s lyrics—still balanced with compassion—are any gauge. “These songs have serious legs,” I wrote in praise of his previous disc. This album’s tunes have teeth.-JEFF ROSENBERG

The Oregonian

Album Review from the Oregonian
Chris Robley is a superhero. Mild-mannered by day, on nights and weekends he turns into Portland's Protector of Pop, keeping the beaten genre safe for thoughtful adults.

While he went about his talent-filled tasks under his own moniker for his first two issues and is one half of the Sort Ofs, Robley has picked up some notable sidekicks for the engaging, action-packed "Movie Theatre Haiku."

Robley's tool chest rivals Batman's: He's elegantly skilled on guitar, bass, piano, drums, vibraphone and banjo, and can even wield a theremin or kazoo when necessary. He tops off the controlled cacophony with a voice that's steady and stoic, yet soft around the multi-tracked edges.

It's a sly and sophisticated defense of the trampled pop song, and it's easy to get swept away in the stick-to-your-brain tunes such as the zippy rocker "User-Friendly Guide to Change" with its power guitars and retro, watery chorus, or the airy-sounding "Solipsist in Love." There's not a bad ditty in the dozen.

But as with most anti-villains, Robley has a dark side. It's found just below the surfaces of his songs, in the lyrics as well as in subdued textures and tones. It's in the quietly defiant "Atheist's Prayer" and in the tales of lovers holding hands for the last time, wounded birds, images of "bones against bricks" and topics such as a "Permanent Fixture of Regret."

It's exactly this juxtaposition -- the tension that comes from discovering gloom beneath grandeur -- that makes "Movie Theatre Haiku" such a riveting listen, and another victory in the battle against banal pop music.- Scott D. Lewis

NPR's Second Stage

NPR's Second Stage Review
Aptly named, Chris Robley’s third solo LP, Movie Theatre Haiku, swirls together dark, evocative instrumentation and poetic lyrics. Quirky track names and the album’s long subtitle, “a Masque of Backwards Ballads, a Picturesque Burlesque,” provide only a hint of the complexities and eccentricities of the album’s many layers. But there’s plenty of surprises to keep you guessing and wanting more.

Dark, romantic strains take flight, thanks to the addition of the backing band, The Fear of Heights, which adds a host of instruments — including the dulcimer, trumpet, clarinet, flute, saxophone, and violin — to Robley’s already robust and full-bodied instrumental lineup. But, Robley and his band don’t stop at traditional instruments. “The Late, Great Age of Paper” also includes synthesizers and electronica elements, offering a nice kick and a modern twist.

Traces of inventive and whimsical bands like The Decemberists and recent Second Stage artist, PT Walkley, may jump out of Portland’s Chris Robley and The Fear of Heights. But this gothic, orchestral indie-pop is sure to leave heads spinning with its unique and haunting sound.

West Coast Performer Magazine

West Coast Performer Magazine Review
Chris Robley is one musician who likes to go big. The Portland singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist conducts a bona fide pop-rock orchestra on his third album, Movie Theatre Haiku, a cinematic musical experience that incorporates numerous genres and instrumental layers, theatrical vocals and lyrics, and enough hooks to prove his innate songwriting talent.

Robley melds his classically trained background with the gamut of modern genres so no two songs on the album sound alike. For starters, along with his backing band, the Fear of Heights, he weaves in just about every instrument but the kitchen sink: violas, clarinets, trumpets and theremin mingle with electric guitars, piano, bass and drums. Some tracks resurrect the pop largess of The Beatles (“User-Friendly Guide to Change”) or stunning folk-rock melodies (the standout “Baltimore Fugitives Buried in Brownsville, TX”), and still others might conjure electronic beats that sound straight out of an Atari video game (“The Late, Great Age of Paper (haiku #2)”), showing that Robley has some experimental tricks up his sleeve.

Perhaps the grandest instrument, however, is Robley’s voice, which he uses to full effect, singing out so loud and clear, as on “My Life in Film Festivals (haiku #1),” that one could easily imagine him the star of a rock opera. Paired with ambitious lyrics, such as on “Atheist’s Prayer” (“God is great/God is good/God is something I/ never understood”), Robley heightens the drama even more.

Robley is a spirited musical presence, and Movie Theatre Haiku, an ambitious work. If that isn’t convincing enough for a listen, not too many artists these days have the cojones to rock the kazoo. It’s nice to know that someone out there is actually having a little fun with music.

AntiMusic.com

AntiMusic.com Review
Chris Robley is a multi-instrumentalist. By which I don’t mean he plays guitars and keyboards. Don’t get me wrong. He does play guitar, keyboards (organs, synths, pianos, etc.) But he also plays bass, vibraphones, marimbas, banjo, mandolin, and so on. That is pretty impressive, especially to me. I have a hard time mastering one instrument.One thing I can say for Chris Robley (aside from the fact that he has created the longest album title I can recall since Fiona Apple’s When the yada yada yada) is that you won’t hear too many albums like his. Movie Theater Haiku begins with a track that is reminiscent of Murder By Death. It features a healthy dose of strings and a rich, sort of literary feel to it.

In fact, the entire album has a literary feel to it. Just look at the song titles such as “The Late, Great Age of paper (haiku #2)” and “Baltimore Fugitives Buried in Brownsville, TX.” They kind of sound like story titles, don’t they. Robley is not interested in making 3-minute verse-chorus-verse songs. Each one of his songs feels more like a short story put to a fairly complex arrangement. That being said, Robley is not above using a kazoo (”Solipsist in Love”), which is probably the least literary-sounding instrument available.

Robley not only shows skill as a multi-instrumentalist. He has created an album in which the style of music varies from one song to the next. There is a definite darkness in some of the tunes (”A Memory Lost at Sea” and “Glass Reich”) while “The User-Friendly Guide to Change” is an upbeat song with a cool horn part.

I’m not sure I could classify Chris Robley other than to call his music arty and complex. I can’t really say he sounds like anyone, but if you are a fan of The Decemberists, you might want to check out Chris Robley and the Fear of Heights.

MetroActive.com

MetroActive Review
WHEN ONE hears that Chris Robley has most famously been called the “Stephen King of indie pop,” it’s natural to imagine songs about rabid dogs, haunted hotels and reanimating graveyards. But if anything, Robley’s fantastical and surreal musical world is more like King’s nonhorror epic The Talisman—a sprawling alternate universe that seems to be just barely separated from our own, and sometimes, suddenly and unexpectedly, brings itself into alignment with the real world.

On his new album, Movie Theatre Haiku, Robley creates a glittering musical landscape that’s not unlike Sufjan Stevens in the way it careens between pop structures and experimentation. “1, 2, 3, 4, it’s my fault,” he sings on the album’s opener, “Waltz for Angelika Dittrich, “this album needed a waltz. But I just can’t stand 3/4 time, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9.”

That’s the thing about Robley: the surface darkness of the music is so in your face it almost has become a crutch for critics looking for a way into Robley’s psyche. In truth, Robley’s writing is also funny and even hopeful—the bubbly and bright “User-Friendly Guide to Change” on this record could have been written by Matthew Sweet, for Christ’s sake. Like Tom Waits, even his most forlorn characters have a sympathetic quality that makes you root for them. Like the Eels, another band known for dark electric soundscapes, it becomes more and more obvious with each listen that Robley believes everything just might be OK.

Bullz-Eye.com

Bullz-Eye.com Review
Chris Robley represents a high ideal in rock – an artist who reaches for the new and uncertain while retaining a firm foothold in the familiar and the oh-so-clichéd “accessible.” On 2007’s The Drunken Dance of Modern Man in Love, he put his penchant for developing story songs into full-blown productions on full display with the added bonus of the freshness of their relatively quick development from conception to recording. OnMovie Theatre Haiku, his third full-length album and first to be co-credited to his road band, the Fear of Heights, Robley has taken his novella approach to pop songs a step further, while creating a harder-hitting sound to up the “accessible” ante.



What hits hardest right off the bat is Robley’s voice – full-throated and in total command, he has all but forsaken the whispered hush of Drunken Dance, the better to drill in the protagonist’s despair over the non-appearance of her sailor lover in “A Memory Lost at Sea,” or the harsh reality of a relationship’s end in the very Beatlesque (circa 1966) “User Friendly Guide to Change.”

His ear is still firmly planted in the present, though – “Solipsist in Love” evokes vintage new-millennium Radiohead, and pretty much throughout the whole album he shows he’s not afraid to mix in electronic textures with his usual blend of natural acoustic guitars, drums and horns. Better still is the Pierre Henry-esque avant garde interlude of noise known as “Glass Reich,” in which Robley pushes his tendency toward creating instrumental “palate cleansers” to its logical extreme.

As for the characters, they are still typically dysfunctional, or as Robley would have it, “measure[ing] distances in a shrinking world.” The banner case study, “My Life in Film Festivals,” which previously bore the title now given to the album, is the now semi-famous (among Robley’s following, at least) chronicle-in-song of the end of a deteriorating relationship in which the protagonists are fighting out of boredom, and fighting what Kurt Cobain might have called “the comfort of being sad.” The song allegedly drove a real life couple in a similar situation to finally call it quits, which pretty much ensures that “Film Festivals” will end up on at least two people’s “songs that changed my life” lists. Meanwhile, the aforementioned “Solipsist” could easily have been borrowed from one of Elvis Costello’s many suspicious-lover sob stories, albeit pruned to a more efficient, easily digestible number of words.

Which brings us to Haiku’s greatest strength – as balancing acts go, Robley’s wordier character sketch moments in focused story-songs like “Atheist’s Prayer” – sung in the first person from what sounds more like a confused agnostic over a gentle piano-based track – are checked even more closely by catchy choruses with punchy percussion in tunes like “Concrete and Nails” and “Baltimore Fugitives Buried in Brownsville, TX.”

The album slithers away rather quietly and modestly with the mostly-spoken “Permanent Fixture of Regret” and a cute counting afterthought (the one-minute “Waltz for Angelika Dittrich”), with a soft-landing that almost mirrors the quiet exit style of Pearl Jam’s No Code. Most importantly, though, Movie Theatre Haiku is Robley’s firmest landing yet, feeling less like the sum of his influences, and most like his own confident voice.

Campus Circle

Campus Circle Review
Portland, Ore.’s Chris Robley is a well-grounded indie rocker with a singer-songwriter mind. Robley’s third effort, Movie Theatre Haiku, has an Elliott Smith likeness, including a heart-suffering perspective with a poetic perceptiveness, which gives Robley’s songs an understanding and literate musical depth.

Movie Theatre Haiku is chock full of eclectic arrangements that support Robley’s unguarded, alienated contemplations. Power guitar-quickened “My Life in Film Festivals” and folktronica “Solipsist in Love” are both driven by lyrical regret. The anti-romantic “User-Friendly Guide to Change” melds Beatles-esque pop with electronica elements, where guitars and beat-happy drums are balanced by perforated horns.

The highlight is “Permanent Fixture of Regret,” a smartly written picture of downturned self-loathing that links Loudon Wainwright’s lyrical insights with Belle and Sebastian’s melodic indie pop textures.Movie Theatre Haiku is an album of tension and ambition that, like a William Faulkner short story, is best experienced with detailed and repeated inspection.

ObscureSound.com

Obscure Sound Review
I always appreciate follow-ups from artists that were featured on this site over a year ago. I must sincerely enjoy an artist for them to appear on this site and that often results in a long process that involves many hours of listeners. Admittedly, I can be overly selective on occasion as to who is being featured. The featured artists that can relate to this selective process are the ones that tend to keep in touch for good reason. By keeping me on their contacts list, they know that they have at least someone with prior recognition of their sound, leading to constructive criticism that wisely uses growth as a basis for development. With that being said, I find myself rarely featuring an artist more than once, mainly because there are so many other uncovered quality acts that would cause me to feel neglectful. Sometimes I just cannot resist though, and it is usually the result of universal “non-exposure” for an artist that I featured over a year ago. Chris Robley and his backing band, The Fear of Heights, certainly apply in this case, as the superior quality of Robley’s new album shows why I am frustrated that he has yet to achieve the acclaim he so passionately deserves. 17 months after his first feature on this site, I feel inclined to shed more light on Robley, a skilled songwriter whose ambitious material yearns for more recognition than his work has been given thus far.

Most of those that have had a chance to listen to Robley’s inventively unconventional interpretation of pop music have enjoyed it immensely. The problem is, not enough people are listening. Last time I checked on Robley, I found myself wildly impressed by how he was able to establish melancholic themes without appearing overly melodramatic. Most artists of Robley’s stylistic vein – which is primarily orchestral pop – topple on dozens of violins in a minor key or use other generic methods of audible expression, but Robley chooses to instead pursue accurate representations of somber ardency in a subtler manner. On his second solo album, Drunken Dance of Modern Man in Love, Robley often exploited the common perception of conventional song structures to simultaneously surprise and awe listeners with melodic build-ups whose beginnings and subsequent eruptions were irregularly placed in order to keep listeners on the edge of their seats. When combined with Robley’s eclectic array of styles, this resulted in something that was inherently unique. On Drunken Dance of Modern Man in Love, he managed to infuse this within electronic and orchestral pop, gypsy-folk, and indie-rock, causing the level of unpredictability to heighten in enjoyable form. On his third album, Robley holds on to this sense of ambitious virtuosity while maintaining a pop-minded sensibility that should appeal especially to listeners that want to venture into unchartered territory without leaving the friendly confines of a familiar genre altogether.

While no one can deny Robley’s talent for crafting skillful hooks, his method of delivering them seems to vary from album to album. Drunken Dance of Modern Man in Love saw the focal points of each song unravel as they progressed, with it being difficult to identify a central hook since the songs were often inventive and stylistically adventurous enough to result in a variety of different tonal methods and structural tendencies. On his third album, Movie Theatre Haiku, Robley takes a slightly more straightforward approach as he maintains his pop ideologies with a more consistent array of accompanying styles. His previous album was all over the map in terms of diversity, and some listeners likely suffered because of it. However, Movie Theatre Haiku presents a batch of songs that seem to capitalize on Robley’s strengths; this is in particular relation to his simple but impressive ability to craft a melody and accompanying hook. As a result, the majority of the songs are within the four-minute range and his most conventional interpretation of pop is prevalent. This is not to say the album is stylistically linear though, as Robley’s definition of pop music remains generally unclassifiable as he seamlessly shifts from the dramatic, key-led ballads like “Premiere” and “Atheist’s Prayer” to explosively anthemic gems like “A Memory Lost at Sea” and “User-Friendly Guide to Change”. When listening to any of the preceding songs, it startles me to think that a songwriter as talented and accessibly capable as Robley has only received minimal attention. Here’s hoping that the slight shift in direction on Movie Theatre Haiku brings it to him.

For those interested in the origin of the title Movie Theatre Haiku, Robley’s concept is quite interesting. Since haikus are meant to be small-scale observations that are later imaginatively interpreted as a microcosm of something much bigger, Robley wondered what it would be like to place a haiku author in a place where one’s individual imagination is useless: a movie theatre. If the author was then asked to write a haiku, Robley believes that “the poem would most likely begin with a wide angle on the world and then shrink, in the end, to something constricted and banal.” This is the basic theme that the album toys with: an individual without the proper environment to stimulate their imagination will be a stuck in a world that is confined to four walls and filled with darkness. “The characters in each of the songs on Movie Theatre Haiku are all lost in this kind of confined space,” Robley explains. This concept of ignorance is reinforced on several songs, particularly on “My Life in Film Festival (haiku #1)”. “You found him selfish and dim, like all men who dwell within their own minds,” Robley sings with his distinctive croon, sounding like a more emotive Elliott Smith over a twinkle of keys and procession of whistles. Similar sentiments are spoken on “Solipsist in Love”, where he proclaims that “it’s hard to believe things existing outside of my head.” That he manages to interconnect each song with such a relatable theme is impressive, but not as impressive as the development of each song in general.

The album’s opener, “A Memory Lost at Sea”, immediately shows listeners that Robley has successfully made the transition into a more accessible, livelier sound that has benefitted from better songwriting, a wider arsenal of instrumentation, and a style that remains cohesive throughout. The piano ballads, acoustic charmers, brassy anthems, and electronic additives are all separable in a sense, but they all remain within the world of pop music since they have evident hooks, consistent structures, and a durable appeal. “A Memory Lost at Sea” fits in more with the brassy anthems, seeing Robley and Rachel Taylor Brown ask, “What happened to my baby? Where has my baby gone?” during a chorus of epic proportions. Mandolins, saxophones, and a very diverse rhythm section make up the majority of this track as Robley goes from whispering verses to the highly expressive chorus. Once the chorus hits though, most listeners will be hooked and will not stop listening until the album’s conclusion (a wise choice considering the amount of good stuff on here). The same can be said for a track like “My Life in Film Festivals (haiku #1)”, where once again a soft-spoken chorus evolves into something grandiose and explosive, this one with roaring guitars instead of mandolins. That it is debatable whether howling anthems like “A Memory Lost at Sea” are more successful than a devastatingly beautiful ballad like “Premiere” is part of the strength of Movie Theatre Haiku, as the album somehow juggles between stylistic diversity and cohesion to find a perfect meeting point. I wrote it 17 months ago and I will write it again: Listen to Chris Robley!

Racket Magazine

Racket Magazine Review
Chris Robley isn’t a cookie-cutter musician. Much of his recordings, from his 2005 debut album onward, have been difficult to categorize. Some tracks can be described as a sort-of techno-rock, others are more sparse and instrumental in nature. Nearly all of them are weird- like Tim Burton weird- and Movie Theatre Haiku is no exception. What makes this one different from the others is its scale- Robley reportedly brought in an orchestra to record a few of the tracks. Yet despite the rich layering of the tracks, the album manages to capture a haunting ambience that is as painful as it is luscious.

Far from a standard EP, the songs trace the story of several unidentified lovers as they drift through a world filled with death and loneliness. One of the tracks, “The Night at the Film Festival,” chronicles the death, both literal and figurative, of a couple’s union. Still another, “Premiere,” is about a packed house of theatre goers, and an acting troupe as they struggle to communicate with each other. All are connected to each other in some way, although it isn’t exactly clear how or why. It is a musical version of Six Degrees of Separation, except with corpses.


Musically speaking, the album is the most intricately produced in years. Nowhere does the orchestra overshadow Robley’s voice, or are tracks uneven. Armadas of strings synch up with cymbals, and horns cover the flanks of pianos, creating an army of sounds that chill to the bone. Listening to the album, one gets the sense that Robley, along with his band the Fear of Heights, locked themselves in a room for an entire year, watched an entire encyclopedia of gothic and foreign films, and emerged with the demo tape.

To be sure, a lot of the credit belongs to techno-funk guru Jeff Stewart, whose handling of the electronic tracks on the album provided it with its eerie sound. Yes, some of the tracks are hard to get into at first- witness “Baltimore Fugitives.” But if there is ever an argument for the reemergence of the concept album, this record is it. Though not everyone will go for it, for those who want their music to sound like the soundtrack to A and E’s Breakfast with the Arts, this is an album for the ages.
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