Robert+Karen – Life as a Handicapped Adult

Robert+Karen
Life as a Handicapped Adult

Robert and Karen’s Life as a Handicapped Adult comes so close to being a solid performance. But ultimately, I have to file this album in the “what-could-have-been-category.” Robert and Karen is the name given for a precocious, teen-aged trio from the San Francisco Bay area. Their music is a solid soup of majestic, noisy guitars, great rock beats, and stunningly mature lyrics. In “Election Day,” the guitars swirl with a power that evokes U2 or Radiohead. The guitars in “Swede Derivative” blast out addictive power pop arpeggios and chords. They run through an extended jam on “A Date With Dethtiny.” The drums bang and the cymbals crash with gigantic glee. Their lyric sheet is filled with phrases such as “why do I wear running shoes / when all I ever do is walk into it and walk into it / again and again,” or “we overslept the magic, missed breakfast too.” They display warmth, candor, and a keen eye for observation and thoughtfulness rare in rock music. These lyrics could whip most of the stuff written for college-level poetry composition classes. The components – good instrumental performances, quality lyrics – are all there to make a good album.
Unfortunately, the disc unravels because of the tentative vocal performance. Even though the lyrics of these songs are well written, lead vocalist Michael Ulrich presents them almost as if he were someone who lost a bet on karaoke night. It’s not that he can’t hit the notes. His voice isn’t really all that bad. Perhaps he’s intentionally trying not to sound like a rock singer, hoping that will effectively enhance the words. Perhaps he’s too embarrassed to really try that hard at it around his friends. Is he singing with a cold? Or maybe the vocal melodies of these songs are substantially weaker than the instrumental backing. If that’s the case, it’s better to go down swinging than to hold back. Let it out, man. Sing! As it is, his voice sounds smugly or coyly distant from the music, and that weakens the entire performance.
The album’s fourth song, “Wednesday Blue,” should give these lads hope for things to come. In it, the two opposing forces, voice and instruments, seem finally to be in accord. “Wednesday Blue” also happens to be the album’s only acoustic number, and perhaps that is why Ulrich’s voice sounds more at home. Now that he can hear himself sing, his voice complements the instruments instead of weighing them down. If only they redid the other five songs with more attention to the vocals or even drop them altogether. The guitar and drum parts are good enough to stand alone.
There’s plenty to admire in Life as a Handicapped Adult, but the discord between the vocal and the instrumental performance is too distracting to ignore. Perhaps they could bring these songs back to the shop for a little tweaking. It would be a shame for this album to come so close only to end up short for want of one more try. If this was a class, Robert and Karen’s project would simply be returned with an incomplete.