For a man who contributed a vast amount of guitar work to most of Thin Lizzy’s classic 1970s releases – and provided half of their trademark, hugely influential twin-lead sound – Brian Robertson’s place as a legend in the annals of rock history is assured. His solo debut ‘Diamonds and Dirt’ comes some thirty-two years after his departure from Lizzy and almost three decades since his short tenure with Motörhead.
Given his previous record, amount of talent and the fact that he has had years out of the spotlight, Robertson’s ‘Diamonds and Dirt’ could have been a belter. Sadly, it’s an album which often appears rather one-paced and workmanlike. In addition, since most of the tracks have supposedly been kicking around in demo form for ages (in some cases dating back to his early 80s band Wild Horses and beyond), ‘Diamonds and Dirt’ sounds like an album which would have been a hit in 1992, back when Robbo’s old running mate Scott Gorham struck out with his band 21 Guns. In 2011, however, it’s a different story – most of the tracks now sound plain dated as opposed to retaining a timeless rock quality.
The title track weaves a mid-paced groove, with staccato rhythms and occasional big chords, but as opposed to a classic seventies sound, the over-riding mood is one of mid/late 80s AOR, delivered decades too late. This could still have passed muster with a better vocal, but ex-Michael Schenker Group vocalist Leif Sundin doesn’t have a great range or an especially powerful delivery. On the plus side, Robbo’s solo is great, though. The funk-rock groove of ‘Passion’ fares a little better, but musically it’s still nothing out of the ordinary – and as the early 90s style funk moments give way to a lightweight AOR chorus full of female backing harmonies, it all gets really fluffy.
A cover of Frankie Miller’s ‘Mail Box’ (from his 1973 album ‘Once In a Blue Moon’) begins with some chunky chords, which it then doesn’t really follow up. Sundin’s vocal comes with a slight huskier tone, but still none of the power needed; the female vocals flesh things out yet again and while Robbo’s chords do their best to maintain interest, it’s not quite enough. A cover of Miller’s ‘Do It Till We Drop’ is similarly uninspired. The wah-wah driven ‘Blues Boy’ is better than most of the album’s tracks, as Robbo gets the opportunity to stretch out a little. The solos are classy while the main riff – a standard blues-rock – has a great tone. Sundin’s lead vocal has nowhere near the kind of grit required for the performance in hand though, and the addition of the female backing vocals (yet again) seem rather out of step with the bluesy mood.
Most of the interest in ‘Diamonds and Dirt’ is likely to concern the re-recordings of a couple of old Thin Lizzy numbers. While, like most of the album, these are fine for what they are, it’s best not to get too excited. A reworking of ‘It’s Only Money’, naturally, still comes with a commanding riff; but while Robbo’s performance is okay, the rest of the band falls short of Lizzy’s greatness. Naturally, a run-of-the-mill vocalist like Sundin is no match for Phil Lynott – and without Lynott’s Irish charm and unique delivery, it just doesn’t feel right somehow. Robertson’s take on ‘Running Back’ (already the weakest number from Thin Lizzy’s classic ‘Jailbreak’ LP) settles into a pub-rock sound, like The Quireboys without any of the clout. Throughout the number, Robertson throws in a few decent slide guitar flourishes, but these are often sidelined in favour of boogie-rock piano moments. A second take on ‘Running Back’ is presented as a swaggering blues, where Robertson’s performances are top-notch. His guitar work speaks for itself here, so it’s easier to overlook Sundin’s middling lead vocal or the obligatory female oohs.
’10 Miles To Go On A 9 Mile Road’ (a number written and originally recorded by alt-rock/country musician Jim White) feels completely out of step with the safe rock heard on most of the other songs. While the use of eastern musical motifs provide some much needed variety and some of Robbo’s guitar playing more than passes muster, the American drawl on the partly spoken vocal sounds very unnatural. Once again, they’ve managed to shoe-horn in the 1980s style female backing too… While it’s great that Robertson was brave enough to include this tune among the more predictable rock styles featured on ‘Diamonds and Dirt’, it doesn’t entirely work out for the best.
For guitar chops ‘Texas Wind’ and ‘That’s All!’ are undoubtedly the album’s greatest achievements, with Robbo offering a couple of fairly fierce solos in the way he was once capable. With a harder vocalist on board, ‘That’s All!’ could have potentially been an absolute belter. As it stands, though, it’s decent enough, with the rhythm section (featuring Treat’s Nalle Pahlsson and Europe’s Ian Haughland, on bass and drums respectively) providing just enough clout.
A cover of Frankie Miller’s ‘Ain’t Got No Money’ finishes things off well, though this has nothing to do with the predictable blues-rock plodding throughout. The god-like Rob Lamothe (one-time Riverdogs frontman) steps up for a guest vocal and in doing so provides the number with something memorable. While it’s admirable that Robertson would choose to include three of his friend Miller’s songs in this collection, you have to wonder if the album would have been improved by the addition of more original material, written by Robbo himself. But then, Robertson was never really work-oriented. Why spend hours and hours writing songs and spending time in the studio when you can spend it doing “rock-star activities”?
…And that brings us back to ‘Diamonds and Dirt’s main weakness. These songs were not really designed as a complete selection for an album release. It’s a collection of ideas and songs which have been pulled together from different sources and recorded at a later date. Despite having years and years worth of unused songs and ideas to draw from (not to mention years to actually write some new ones), Robertson couldn’t even manage to put together twelve original compositions.
From a new or lesser artist, ‘Diamonds and Dirt’ would probably sound okay, though still not remarkable by any means. From an artist of Robbo’s calibre however, a few guitar leads aside, the album just doesn’t cut it in the way it should. It’s certainly not wrong to have expected more than what’s on offer here, maybe up to the standard of the short-lived Wild Horses with Jimmy Bain. The album is far from objectionable, but there’s nothing here to keep listeners coming back for more.
If you’re a Thin Lizzy completist, you’ll certainly be adding ‘Diamonds and Dirt’ to your collection, but be fully prepared to play it a couple of times and then leave it on the shelf.