Easy listening this is not. There’s meat on the bones on this record. Jon Brooks hails from Ontario, Canada and The Smiling And Beautiful Countryside is his 5th album to date. It is the first record of his I have heard, so I can’t really compare it with his previous output. He’s playing all of the few instruments heard on the album, actually it’s pretty much only guitars, a banjitar, plus some rudimentary percussion, which apparently is mainly his feet tapping and banging on his guitar. As you would expect, this makes for a rather sparsely instrumented and spartan album. The sound is dry, but quite substantial and good, with his gruff voice sounding like a little less moody Tom Waits (or Mr. Waits on one of his more friendly albums).
The songs range from the short, barely over one and a half minutes long These Are Not Economic Hard Times to the over 11 minutes long The Only Good Things Is An Old Dog. The latter of which expertly weaves together the story of a workplace mass killing with quotes from Shakespeare’s King Lear and Charles Baudelaire’s The Flowers Of Evil. A whole lot of songs on here are about murders and death. The Twa Sisters (also recorded in the recent past by Tom Waits on his triple-album Orphans) is based on a Francis James Child ballad and dates back to the 19th Century. It’s a long, splendid and hypnotic song with a lovely tune standing in stark contrast to the gruesome lyrics about betrayal, killing and mutilation.
My favorite song on here, Queensville is similar in that regard. Whereas The Twa Sisters is a pretty ballad, Queensville in contrast is a somewhat uptempo Hillbilly-Folk song with a catchy and upbeat feel to it. Equally uncomfortable lyrics however, about the unsolved murder of a young girl make for a captivating listening experience.
Album opener Gun Dealer is percussion-heavy and energetic and with its long list of available gun-models an excellent statement about gun-crazy cultures. People Don’t Think Of Others is yet another song I love dearly on here, the maudlin lyrics about a double suicide pact perfectly augmented by a melancholic tune and a gorgeous Folk arrangement. It’s also a fine pointer of where Jon Brooks is from with the opening lines of ‘He came from Elfros, Saskatchewan a flat town from which thwarted dreams are born, you could watch your dog run until lunchtime, or the indifferent trains ‘til morn’. Music from the Canadian Prairies breathing the wide open spaces and the secrets contained in them – in the case of The Smiling And Beautiful Countryside, the dark ones, where the ugly side of human nature rears its head all too often.
Highway 16 is again concerned with the human abyss, this one is a bout a truck driving serial killer, and on here the subdued mood of the song fits the unpleasant lyrics very well indeed. Felix Culpa is the darkest-sounding song on the album, the haunting sound of the banjitar and percussion accompaniment giving it a perfect Southern Gothic feel, reminiscent of a stripped down 16 Horsepower in their prime.
Album closer Worse Than Indians is inspired by a book about the relocation of a Dene tribe and a plea for forgiveness in the face of injustice and the wrong that has been done.
The Smiling And Beautiful Countryside is a convincing album by a songwriter with stories to tell, not always ones you necessary want to hear, but stories that will linger in your head for a long time after your heard them. His expressive voice and energetic musical accompaniment making the songs on the album all the more unforgettable.