The Face of Future Country
by Cat Celebrezze
What is country music? Arguably, it's one of the founding genres to which the modern pop music landscape owes its druthers, the other two being rock and R&B. But if the current music era is one marked by a proliferation of genres - alt-country, folk rock, bluegrass gospel, roots rock, just to name a few flavors - are the boundaries of country getting poked and prodded into something other than itself? The answer, of course, is that country music (and its trinitarian, industry brethren) never existed as monoliths except when they get flatten down into boring stereotypes. Country supposedly means white and poor. Rock is a god sprung fully formed from Elvis' swinging hips rather than borne from the Blues; R&B is all about macking. By asking, what is country music? there is a big risk of bemoaning “genre erosion” which then props up tired and frayed dogma about what is and what isn't authentic. So instead of looking for a mythical line between heretical deviance from, and obsequious coziness to, a named tradition, let's go from the gut: who are the artists that call up the roots of country music in all its blues modes, balladic songwriting, deft expression of heartache, and honky-tonk attitude?
A fine answer to that question, is Rachel Brooke. The Google snippet for her website identifies her as a “country artist from Michigan” and such a tidy descriptor is both deceptive and intriguing. It both fails to evince her stellar musicianship and commanding skill on vocals, acoustic guitar, Fender Rhodes, vibraphone and a battalion of percussion instruments all the while making one curious as to what exactly a Michigander sounds like as a country singer. Reviewers love this puzzle and describe her mercurial sound as having the spirit of “Alabama in Detroit,” something arising from the back beyond of the midwest and joining up with ghosts of the gothic South. When asked about what might be conceived of as a geographical tension in her work, Brooke is straightforward about her musical variegation: “It's just a reflection of all the things I love. Being exposed to different types of music and cultures they become a part of you if you let them, and I enjoy mixing them all together to make music that speaks for me.” And giving an ear for listening to this talented artist will take you through the wilds of what it means to be in a genre but not of it.
Brooke's eponymous debut 2009 release is a set of thirteen tracks that are eerie and haunting in the same way a David Lynch movies tend to be. Here we get some true-to-the-bone gothic country that showcases her incredible voice, her acute sense of storytelling, and her ear for production design. In the lyrics, we find all the grist common to country: alcohol-induced fugues (“Bottle Tippin Blues,” “Blackin' Out”), baleful lucidity over dashed ambition (“Dead Dog,” “Too Far Gone,” “Your Sweet Years”), shotgun blues (“The River”) and a fine murder ballad (“Knoxville Girl”). But every track is wrapped in an Alan Lomax-like envelope of hiss and pop, of wavering pitches and background noise, a production decision that makes it difficult to pin down when it was recorded. Adding to this effect is Brooke's high aptitude for moving from a low register and jumping a couple octaves up, reminiscent of mid-twentieth century blue yodeling. These tracks never detour into nostalgia though; they carry the sharp tang of blues in the now and have a contemporary frankness, such as with “Blue Day”: Blue day/we're gonna drink you away/Blue day/we're gonna fuck you away. There is also an experimental, ethereal track called “Wolves” that uses echo, delay and the blue yodel vocal technique, combining into sonics that are both unnerving and poetic. The entire album poses questions about where in reality one is, and warns against any easy, adamant answers we might think we have.
In contrast to this nimble, low-fi effort, that same year Brooke released A Bitter Harvest, a collaboration with Lonesome Wyatt of Those Poor Bastards. The album has a theatrical feel to it, akin to The Black Rider, the Tom Waits, Robert Willson opera, and evokes an alternative noir universe where Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner relish and sing about all that is dark and sinister and human and irrepressible as its played out in the back alley of life. Brooke's vocal sweetness combines with Wyatt's earthy baritone to thread shadowy, gothic lyrics through buoyant melodies as on “Empty House”: Wish I had the courage to/slit my fucking throat/Wish I had a bag of that good old fashion dope/‘Cause it's hard coming home to an empty house. That sense of being upbeat and warped can also be found in the waltzy finery of “Darkness” that oompahs through a pledge to and preference for the song's title subject:Where I stumble and lose my place in theBrooke continued in this, a more maximalist vein with her more “traditionalist” 2011 release, Down in the Barnyard. Of all her releases, Down in the Barnyard fits most readily into the country category with its banjos, acoustic guitars, strings and pump organs. Inspired by the sound of the Carter Family all the while retaining the characteristic slyness to her voice and lyrics, Brooke lays down tracks that move with grace from the self aware lament (“City of Shame”), to a roadhouse stomp (“Mean Kind of Blues”) to toe-tapping, banjo-driven country gospel (“Don't Forget Me When I Die”).
Darkness, darkness, darkness, darkness
I just don´t care for the light of day on me
I´d rather stumble around blindly
Sometimes when I´m sleeping
And walking I find myself
Falling out the window into
Darkness, darkness, darkness, darkness
This traditionalist bent carries over to her ingenious 2012 release, A Killer's Dream but gets augmented with a return to the noir lyricscape. The tracks here delight in illuminating consciousness' underground where emotions take to wearing masks and telling tall tales. Scratch the surface of its Tennessee rhythms and blue mountain melodies, and you'll find nary a shred of sentimentality, only a cunning attention to the willful throes of the female psyche in love and hate and the existential carnivale. The brilliance in the arrangements and lyrics is unparalleled, offering up tremendous songwriting gems that reveal Brooke's contemporary edginess. No Loretta Lynn she, when she sings in “Fox in a Hen House” There ain't no devil in my heart/‘cause I ain't a man/but there been one in my kitchen/cookin' with my pots and pans. No Tammy Wynette, either, when she belts out in the title track,Yeah you're a killer/you always find a way/and you can call me your queen, but I know/I'm only prey. Pretty much every track on this album is a hypnotizing world unto itself, rife with the thrilling menace of talking blackbirds, lovers creeping in through windows at the witching hour, “the crushed red velvet” of the love-lonesome heart, and talking dream rattlesnakes (“The Black Bird,” “Late Night Lover,” “Only For You,” “Serpentine Blues”).
When asked about her equal pull toward the traditional country music canon and the more contemporary/modern gothic, Brooke, doesn't see it as being at odds:
“It's one of those things where it all lines up perfectly. I was born into a family of musicians. Music lovers who happened to play bluegrass and country music. I grew up listening to it, and that's how I learned. I don't try and be “nostalgic” country music, but that is just the kind of music I feel I was born to sing. I don't purposefully try to mimic three-chord songwriting, and old-time singing. It's just what I subconsciously know. I actually feel lucky that my voice matches the kind of music that I write. I guess what I'm trying to say is that I don't purposely “rely” on a certain type of music format, and I definitely don't feel “trapped” in the country music box, or the Southern gothic box. I just do what I do, and somehow with every project I've been involved in, it just seems to work out and I trust that it will continue to do so.”
That Brooke recorded A Killers Dream straight-shot live in the studio with the members of Viva La Vox (“What you hear on the record is how it all went down in the studio”) is a little staggering considering the richness of the production and degree of musicianship among all the players.
Her next release in 2015, again with Lonesome Wyatt, entitled Bad Omen takes listeners an experimental wagon train ride out to the prairies edge of genre expectations all the while containing some harmonizing mojo that would make Stevie Nicks envious. Like Bitter Harvest, the release has a dark theatrical feel, taking malignancy, mess and the irresistible nature of doomed love as its theme. Here we have a return to distorted vocals and instrumentation that make the songs sound like they are traveling through a mysterious steampunk time machine, one that decides to take us back with it on its return voyage. Again there is the beguiling sweetness to songs like “Dance With Me” that never curdles even when you realize the narrator's invitation to a last dance involves poison. It's clear Brooke and Wyatt have a respect for each other and a mutual affinity for the fun in creating strange, earnest, twisted narratives. (“We send songs back and forth and then he usually makes everything sound magical.”) The whole album feels like a laughing, Grimm's fairy tale augury, but most so on “When You Are Young”: When you are young/Your beauty comes so easily/You can not imagine the sad monster/Your reflection will soon be/When you are young/You're so dumb/Have fun/Have fun/For all too soon/The dream is done.
Just as Bad Omen shows Brooke's capacity to branch out from traditional country forms into the carnivalesque, her 2016 release, The World's Greatest Anchor, moves into new territory as well, although in a different direction. At just six tracks of acoustic guitar and vocals, the album has a lovely brevity that lends it a song cycle character. Despite their compact nature, the songs fully convey the bittersweet awareness of being fucked up and flawed in love. The effect is an intentional evocation of the “depths” that can claim us - the ghosts that haunt us, the deep sea that is heartbreak, the numb riptide of apathy, the vortex of revenge. And yet, the songs don't envelope us in a bottomless murk of pain, but rather work like little glimmers into a larger story, one in which the listener can reflect and take solace. Here, more than on any other release, Brooke expresses the vulnerability of unassuaged loss. It is this fearless command of expression, no matter how close to the bone, that sets her apart as a performer:
“The thought behind that release was more about the initial contact of an emotion, like the first stab of pain…For me, it is going to those dark places intentionally. It's not easy, and I often have to sacrifice a lot to get there... I don't know if those emotional places necessarily “call” to me. It's more out of necessity than anything else. It's how I cleanse my mind, even if just for a moment.”
The title track suggests, as does the aptly named, “Ghost of You,” that the album is not light fare. And indeed it keeps comfort, no matter how cold, at arm's length. That is not to say it's unsatisfying, because it is in its clear-eyed melancholy, like a letter written to an older self, trying to fully explain what that self might have forgotten.
Her latest project - a collective of her fellow musicians and friends (and musician/husband Brooks Robbins) known as Modern Mal - marks another foray into something less beholden to old categories. Stand outs on their 2017 release, The Misanthrope Family Album, include the back-to-back tracks “Clean” and “Just a Satellite” which show how Brooke can go from minimal instrumentations to lively and lusher compositions with great ease. Asked about this ability, Brooke cites that she always lets the music take the lead: “Sometimes I feel that certain songs sound better with minimal instrumentation, and others I hear lots of sounds and instruments. With the album I just released with Modern Mal, I felt like I got to experiment a lot, and I loved it. But as an approach, I kind of just let the songs speak for themselves. If it tells me it's good on its own, I leave it.” The biggest treat of this endeavor is the open, experimental nature of songs like “Space Debris,” with it's echoey, far-a-way beds, and “The Anxious Entertainer” with its jitter and warp that channels Leonard Cohen while being distinctly post-millennial.
Beyond her own releases, there is a scattering of Rachel Brooke contributor tracks to be found on others' albums, such as “Wine” with Fifth on the Floor, or as backing vocal on Poet Radio's “Sugar from Salt.” Both recordings illustrate her ability to weave her impressive voice into the fabric of a composition without overshadowing whoever is in the spotlight. And she has some outstanding one-offs like her “Closer Still” contribution to Outlaw Radio Chicago's compilation and “The Mystery of Death” - a bouncy B-side to the Exene Cervenka, Sean Wheeler & Zander Schloss “Sinner Man” collaboration released by Muddy Roots Recordings.
Understanding the deep well of talent that is Rachel Brooke, “a country singer from Michigan,” will not disappoint, but she will ask you to check your more conventional expectations at the door. Your reward is a chance to join in on a midnight jaunt through graveyards and dreams, awhirl with Jungian shadows, headstrong grit, and gothic Americana being made by ladies with guns. Brooke wants clearly to walk a line between the past and present. She does just that with her high-caliber musicianship which, while not chained by tradition, is unabashed by her indebtedness to the poetic souls of the past. She both embraces and has independence from her influences, something she sums up perfectly when she wound down our email exchange by telling me of a dream she had:“Last night I had a dream that I met Hank Williams in a loud bar. He was laughing and happy and I noticed that he had some messed up teeth. He knew my name, and told me something important, but I couldn't hear him over the noise in the bar. When I woke up, I remembered thinking of Leonard Cohen's song, "Tower of Song." He sings: I said to Hank Williams/How lonely does it get?/Hank Williams hasn't answered yet/But I hear him coughing all night long/Oh, a hundred floors above me in the Tower of Song.”And as for the genre designations architecting the Tower of Song, they are the constellations in the musical sky that orient us. But sometimes it is well worth looking past Vega and Sirius to the more subtle groupings that illuminate the night in an original and unique way, all the while remaining stars. In terms of Rachel Brooke, Nashville will be lucky to eventually discover her, but it will always be Detroit that is really gets her.
Also our 2020 article on Rachel Brooke
Also see artwork by Cat Celebrezze at Laminated Love and Joshua Tree Gallery
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