Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Brian Straw: “Baby Stars/Dead Languages” (2022) CD Review

Brian Straw is a singer and songwriter who released a few albums between 2000 and 2006, and then was quiet as far as official output, while dealing with his own personal troubles. But in 2017 he began performing again and working on a new album which is now finished. Titled Baby Stars/Dead Languages, this new release features mostly original material, songs that address and chronicle his struggles and recovery. And though obviously very personal, these songs hold a larger appeal because of his talent as a lyricist. Joining him on these tracks are Rob Kovacs on piano and organ; Al Moss on pedal steel; Nick Cross on guitar; Chase Ockuly on guitar; Mike Tolan on bass; Bill Lestock on mandolin, guitar, bass and violin; Tony Cross on drums and percussion; and Dan Price on drums and percussion. Emily Keener, Bethany Jay and Alex Tapie provide backing vocals.

The album opens with “Sleep Study,” which quickly creates an interesting mood, with somewhat muted percussion at its base. The music begins to swell above that, creating a compelling atmosphere that seems to surround us and involve us. “When I find out who’s awake and who’s asleep/I stand at attention and plant my feet/In the dirt beneath.” The backing vocals highlight the beauty of this track. “Sunlight streaming down your face/Your eyes led me to this place/Where we begin/And end.” This one concludes with a rather pretty instrumental section, a continuation of the general mood of the piece, allowing us to drift away on its back. That’s followed by “I Have Not Wandered (Far From You).” Here he directly addresses his trouble with alcohol, the song’s opening lines being “I was thinking of finding my way/To a town where I’d get sober/Where revisionists couldn’t judge me/And drag me down.” This one too has an interesting atmosphere, but his vocals are in strong focus, and he delivers a really good performance. After a time, the electric guitar becomes prominent, like a second voice, then fades somewhat back into the overall atmosphere again, rising after that when it needs to. “I was lucky to find you when I did.”

“I Still Dream Of You” has a gentle, easygoing vibe, music that feels designed to be a comfort, an aid in tough times. That work on pedal steel in particular helps in that respect. “But I don’t regret you/I never do/Oh, I still dream of you.” This is the only track on the album that was not written by Brian Straw. Joseph Allen Beltram wrote this one. That’s followed by “Needle In The Creek,” which has more of a familiar folk sound as it begins, and features some wonderful work on guitar. “Don’t the moon look pretty, baby/Shining down on us/Waiting for the bus/To take us home.” And I love that work on violin. This song builds wonderfully , and is one of my personal favorites. A lot of lines stand out for me, such as “I ain’t giving into fear/But something tells me you have what I need to disappear” and “And if I tried to leave my body, would you come along.” Then the music of “Murmurations” rolls in on us like waves, feeling like a soft morning, the sunlight breaking through our own darkness, something arriving to put an end to our loneliness. This one also features some pretty backing vocal work. It concludes with an interesting instrumental section, like a vivid landscape, a place we could step into.

“Keys To My Room” features such an unusual and intriguing combination of sounds, folk (its first line calling to mind a Bob Dylan song) and a sort of industrial sound, with a strong percussive element, all of it working surprisingly well. “Your voice shaking against the gods/Waking up against the odds.” It ends with him singing, “Just know that I’m here to stay.” Now that is a line that each of us needs to hear from someone. And I wonder if it is also a line letting his fans know that there will not be another fifteen-year gap between albums. Brian Straw changes gears then with “Underground,” his voice at first supported by keyboard, the focus being on the lyrics. This track features one of the album’s best vocal performances, and the lyrics include some memorable phrases, such as “I didn’t choose who I would be,” and strong images, such as “Asleep on a bed of fire/Tangled up in buried wires.” That’s followed by “Shame & Desire,” which at first eases in gently. Then the sound grows and suddenly this song bursts open, taking on more of a rock edge, and a good beat. I really like the work on drums here. “Out of luck and out of time/Out of body and out of mind.” “Out Of Doors” then begins with a somewhat relaxed groove, and builds at certain moments to become powerful. “On the edge of my bed/Shadows in my head.”

“Microdream” begins with the sound of strings, and then, as if emerging from the mists in the distance, comes the beat, feeling like it is traveling toward us to deliver some truth, some wisdom. I love his vocal performance especially on this track, with many lines stated simply. “I walked over to your house/You looked pretty in the doorway looking out/My hand resting on your shoulder/As you dissolved, my heart falling like a boulder/And nothing was the same again.” At other moments, this song grows in power. “Tell me what you meant/When you said I couldn’t see/The mirror in front of me.” And that instrumental section in the track’s second half is beautiful, the way the various instruments contribute to the same thought in a pattern that could run forever, if the track didn’t begin to fade out. This is another of my personal favorites. Then some pretty guitar work begins “Close Enough To Know.” These lines stand out for me: “We’re in our forties now and time is speeding up/You wrote a note to me, I sobered up.” It is crazy how time moves faster the older we get. Sometimes I get angry at time for not being more accommodating to my own needs. Shouldn’t it adjust to us, at least once in a while? “Half-Buried Crow” likewise begins with some gentle, pretty guitar work. This one also features a moving vocal performance. Check out these lines: “No one really forgives/Just forgets and regrets/You have scruples, you insist.” This song, and thus the album, ends with him repeating the line “Run away, run away

CD Track List

  1. Sleep Study
  2. I Have No Wandered (Far From You)
  3. I Still Dream Of You
  4. Needle In The Creek
  5. Murmurations
  6. Keys To My Room
  7. Underground
  8. Shame & Desire
  9. Out Of Doors
  10. Microdream
  11. Close Enough To Know
  12. Half-Buried Crow

Baby Stars/Dead Languages is scheduled to be released on January 21, 2022.

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