(Frog Records, 1998)
It may well be that you heard some of Steve Brooks’ work without being able to place the name right now. Every week for most of the year 1998 he wrote a topical song based on the news for the nationally-syndicated Jim Hightower show. In order to come up with a original piece of work week after week, you better be blessed with wit and talent, because otherwise the audience will be bored with you in no time at all. And Steve Brooks seems to have managed his stint with considerable success.
Austin — the name of that city alone should help you a little bit to imagine the kind of music Brooks is into. Bulletproof is his second album and he seems in no need to show off with an impressive roster of guest musicians. The record is homemade in the best sense of the word and is executed by three musicians only: Brooks on primarily acoustic guitars and occasionally the harmonica and tin whistle; Marilyn Rucker on piano; and Jackie Kemmy on rhythm guitar on one track, some percussion and lots of harmonies. Her vocal contributions are mixed very upfront most of the time, often making her more of a duet partner than anything else. She even gets to do the lead vocals on on the stunningly beautiful “A Single New Star.”
Brooks’ own voice has the warm charm of a lazy Texan afternoon. His singing may have less to do with technical precision than with achieving the perfect mood, but he’s managing the latter with an astonishing ease. The music is a melange of country and folk with tender qualities, standing clearly in the great tradition of people like the late Townes Van Zandt or the somewhat lesser known Steve Fromholz. Both these names were doubtlessly amongst those who made the Texan outlaw music great in the first place.
One of the things that made that kind of music such an accomplishment was its combination of dryness of sound and the lyrical value of the words. The exact same things are true of Steve Brooks also. No wonder he gets praise from songwriters of the highest order, like Ellis Paul and Slaid Cleaves, as the songs Brooks pens are full of spiky and quick wit. Whether he quietly says goodbye to Townes Van Zandt in “The Checking Out” or whether he wishes his innocent childhood days back in a Harry Chapin kind of way in “Now and Then,” Brooks always proves to have a keen eye for what’s happening to this and his world. Sometimes he feels the need to use biting irony to get along with life; Brooks lets you know: “I Don’t Brake For BMWs,” emphasizing it with a sparkle in his voice and a grin on his face. Whereas the ballad “Wings Of Daylight” shows his more poetic vein:”We’ll tumble through the trap door / That’s right beneath our feet / Hold nothing but the moment / In our arms so warm and sweet.”
Steve Brooks is well equipped. When poignancy, humour, humanity and poetic licences were handed out, he must have been on the receiving end for a considerable amount of time, because he possesses all these qualities in almost alarming dimensions. Make yourself comfortable, open a bottle of Shiner beer (optional for non-Texans) and let Steve Brooks take you for a ride across his universe called Texas.
[ by Michael Gasser ]