Baby Stars/Dead Languages

Brian Straw

Land Lover, 2022

http://www.brianstraw.org

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 02/04/2022

Sometimes an album is just a collection of songs—and sometimes it marks a major milestone in an artist’s journey through life.

Brian Straw was an up-and-coming performer out of Cleveland, Ohio whose career in the early 2000s included collaborations with local post-rock collective Six Parts Seven, a trio of out-of-print solo LPs, and tours of the US and Europe. Then alcohol took over his life and his muse shut down for the better part of a decade, until around the time he took his last drink in 2017.

The songs collected on Baby Stars / Dead Languages trace Straw’s path to sobriety and all that came with it; they are the product of a person going through an at-times harrowing transformation. “The songs unfold in real time,” says Straw. “Everything I was dealing with emotionally went into the music. I was hard on myself. I carried around a lot of shame and regret. I broke down a lot. I lost my girlfriend. The making of the record became my therapy.”

The resulting music is thoughtfully paced Americana that’s often cast in Springsteenesque sepia tones, with Straw’s agreeably husky voice spinning story after story pulled up from the depths of a soul in pain.

Opener “Sleep Study” feels like a hymn, a lost soul singing a spiritual to comfort himself. The lyric is an impressionistic series of images set against an evocative backdrop of muted drums, spare electric piano and whispery guitar. “I Have Not Wandered (Far From You)” furthers that solemn vibe with gospel-flavored Hammond and gentle electric guitar strums as Straw gets right to the heart of the matter: “I was thinking of finding my way / To a town where I’d get sober.” The music gradually picks up volume and power as it progresses, weighing each word and phrase deliberately. my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The arrangements fill out with “I Still Dream Of You” and “Needle In The Creek,” the former a loping, melancholy tune with chiming electric and soaring slide over Hammond and brushed drums, the latter playing up the country-rock influence with fiddle in the lead and nice acoustic picking. Straw quiets things down again for the somber “Mumurations,” the production capturing every squeak as his fingers shift on the frets. The song has a tidal surge to it that’s furthered by ocean sound effects lurking in the mix as Straw sings “When a bird changes direction / The others follow suit with perfection,” before electric guitar emerges from the mix, reaching for the sky with crackly ascending notes.

“Key To My Room” presents a fresh feel, a rumbly mid-tempo tune with chiming acoustic guitars and shadowy electric effects creating a hypnotic, almost orchestral feel over a tumbling, circular backbeat. “Underground” opens quiet with just voice and haunting electric piano before exploding at the chorus with multitracked vocals and searing sustained guitar notes. The album’s middle third climaxes with “Shame & Desire,” the one genuine rock song here, with skittering drums, driving bass and ringing, fiery electric guitar driving a headlong number about facing down our demons.

The final third of the album continues the intensity while dialing down the tempos. “Out Of Doors” brings big, thrumming guitars to bear on an otherwise mid-tempo number, giving it a rather theatrical feel. Then “Microdream” contradicts its title with a stretched-out seven-minute tune featuring marching drums, rippling piano, bells, guitars, and a vibe that builds from dreamy to cascading as Straw sings about opening up “a portal to my past.” Equally expansive closing pair “Close Enough To Know” and “Half-Buried Crow” finish up with the focus back on Straw’s voice, the former spotlighting rippling acoustic chords and the latter featuring an especially dramatic reading that almost feels like spoken-word at times. “Run away, run away, run away” chants Straw over the outro until the final note fades.

Straw’s work is in the tradition of dusky-voiced fellow travelers like Michael McDermott and Ben Bostick, though his style is distinctively spare and dramatic in presentation. These songs would be plenty compelling if they were fiction; knowing they aren’t only underscores their power. For the audience, Baby Stars / Dead Languages is an album of gripping, intense Americana. For Brian Straw, this set of songs is an exorcism, an essential step in reclaiming his life from addiction, and you feel those stakes with every note he plays and every word he sings.

Rating: B+

User Rating: Not Yet Rated


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