In the deeply cynical 21st century, it's easy to look past Tim Robbins as a songwriter because he's the latest in a long line of actors who've "diversified" their careers by adding "musician" to their résumés. Robbins, however, has a long musical history. Both his parents were musicians, and he's been playing mandolin and guitar since he was a boy. It's also notable that he wrote and performed all the songs in his film Bob Roberts. Producer Hal Willner convinced him to commit his tunes to tape in a real studio with a stellar -- and in demand -- cast of players who include Kate St. John, Roger Eno, David Coulter, Andy Newmark, Rory McFarlane, Leo Abrahams, and Dudley Phillips; guests include Joan Wasser (Joan as Policewoman) and Steven Bernstein. Robbins wrote all the songs here. The flavor is pure Americana, deeply influenced by Bruce Springsteen and Steve Earle. Robbins is not a gifted vocalist by any stretch, which makes for rather strained listening at times, but he does write decent, if serviceable songs. Set with a lilting piano, electric 12-string, and harmonium, the song's subject could be a broken character from Springsteen's Nebraska, and yes, that's praise. The single "You're My Dare" is a fast-tempo country-waltz disguised as a desperate love song, populated by hurdy-gurdy, mandolin, piano, Wasser's backing vocals, and the unshakeable rhythm section of Newmark on drums and McFarlane on double bass. "Toledo Girl," despite its quietly dissonant intro, pays (perhaps unconscious) homage to the forlorn characters on Springsteen's Tunnel of Love album (its single line descriptor on the back sleeve states the song's theme is "love as a car crash"). The more informal material, like the straight-up Celtic honky tonk of "Queen of Dreams," works best because the shortcomings in Robbins' voice aren't so glaring. The lyrics in "Lightning Calls," written for Nelson Mandela, are so powerful, that when illumined by Bernstein's layered flügelhorn, looped electric guitars, piano, and violin, they overcome Robbins' shortcomings in delivering them. Ultimately, Tim Robbins & the Rogues Gallery Band is a mixed bag: it contains terrific music underscoring very decent material. Despite Robbins being literally unable to sing, it's a better album than anyone had any right to expect.
AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek