Folk music. The best.
Folk music. The best.
A bit more straight up Country than I usually listen to, but this performance is just too good. The sheer amount of enthusiasm by Stompin’ Tom, the band and not forgetting the dancing woman, is nothing short of genius.
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.
Jon Brooks is a Canadian Singer/Songwriter who I have only recently discovered. Still have to get one of his records, his latest album The Smiling And Beautiful Countryside was released in late 2014, so I’m probably gonna go for that. This song, Mercy is taken from his 2011 album Delicate Cages, is a splendid, quiet acoustic song with intelligent lyrics – so it’s right up my street.
When Nothing But A Burning Light was released, way back in 1991, I liked the music I was listening to have a bit more punch and drive, so I didn’t give him and his music the attention it definitely deserves. Having left the ‚Rock’ period more or less behind the past few years, I can see now that he is an amazing guitarist, an extraordinarily gifted songwriter and politically on the ‘right’ side, which for me is the left. He’s long been active and supportive of humanitarian and ecological causes, as well as a supporter of Native American causes (he was, for a time in the 1960’s, a member of Abundance To Revolution with Duke Redbird, whose song Silver River (with Shingoose) can be heard on Native North America Vol. 1 (read my review here). Which neatly brings me to one of the standout tracks of this record, Indian Wars. Fittingly, it’s a somber, sparsely produced song with only him on acoustic guitar/vocals and Jackson Browne on a resonator guitar together with violin/mandolin player extraordinaire Mark O’Connor. The result is a dignified, slow and gorgeous songs with touching, poetic lyrics such as this: ‘treaties get signed and the papers change hands but they might as well draft these agreements on sand’. O’Connor’s contributions can’t be praised enough, on here, as well as on One Of The Best Ones, his graceful violin/mandolin accompaniments are simply wonderful. Also exceedingly excellent is Child of the Wind – a song with a title like this could be very much kitsch in lesser hands, but on here it’s utterly beautiful (this time with Cockburn on a resonator guitar, having one of those played on a song is always a plus). Speaking of arrangements, the album is produced by probably the best man for this kind of music, T Bone Burnett. Burnett contributed his skills to many of my favorite records such as Counting Crows’ August and Everything After, as well as albums by The Wallflowers, Jakob Dylan and Gillian Welch (just to name a few). In the recent past he’s become legendary of course with his musical directions for The Coen Brothers’ O Brother Where Art Thou?’ and Inside Llewyn Davis. On here you hear a sound which is, for that time period, outstandingly good, a bit thinner than nowadays maybe, but there’s mainly acoustic instruments and the sound is both rustic and naturalistic – just as I like it. There’s also two lovely instrumental songs, one, Actions Speak Louder is the theme to a documentary called The Greenpeace Years. The slightly too commercial for my taste Great Big Love most probably was intended as a hit single (the album was released on Columbia Records after all), but for me is the least convincing song on the album. Album opener A Dream Like Mine which sounds similarly catchy (it’s one of the few slightly more uptempo songs) fares much better in comparison. Second track Kit Carson and Mighty Trucks Of Midnight sound exactly like the titles suggest, breathing the spirit of empty North American trails and highways, with the latter touching on problematic issues such as US American companies leaving the country to do their manufacturing down in Mexico. Soul Of A Man, a song by Blind Willie Johnson sounds exactly like you would expect it to (which is a good thing, naturally). Somebody Touched Me in contrast, sounds light and airy with a rather nice organ by Booker T. Jones. I’ve just been rediscovering this CD among my records a few days ago, I didn’t even know anymore I had it. I am very glad I did, it’s an amazing record by an artist at the prime of his career, with a producer on board that knows exactly how to produce this kind of music, a match made in heaven. And, most importantly, a bunch of great songs. Here’s a rather beautiful video/slideshow to ‘ Indian Wars’. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9t1a5DLmR8U