I happened to come across this artist by chance, interviewing him for a magazine in California a few months back. After listening to one of his previous albums, What I Mean to Say Is Goodbye, images of great singer-songwriters and great voices of the last few decades came to mind, whether it was the timbre of Ricky Nelson or the warble that makes most of his tracks have a warm, folksy, comforting nature. Tom Brosseau, like most underappreciated talents, is still under the radar, but is making inroads with each record. And this one is no different. While it might not be the sparse, simple collection of tunes that graced the aforementioned album, Empty Houses Are Lonely is still chock full of quality numbers and precious vocal phrasing. Perhaps the surprising thing is how well the songs gel despite this record being a compilation of songs he recorded as demos when he made the trek from North Dakota to California.
From the opening of “Fragile Mind”, Brosseau sounds as if he’s recording the tune in his living room, hoping the mailman or some door-to-door salesman doesn’t come knocking in the next few moments. The song has a slight swing to it, but is basically what Brosseau does best—mixing vocals and acoustic guitar with terrific results. He’s the type of wordsmith who draws you in quite quickly a la Ron Sexsmith, leaving you hanging on every note. “No one knows my mind’s been fragile,” he sings, as the song ambles along to the rhythm of his picking. Meanwhile, “Everybody Knows Empty Houses Are Lonely” is a darker, moodier piece of work that has Brosseau, along with a lovely female harmony, singing of billboards that haven’t been changed or the slowly decaying state of these familial abodes.
The singer’s greatest attribute is how he seems like he’s not of his time, but resident in the barren and beautiful recording studios of the ‘50s. This is particularly true during the tender, dirge-meets-slow dance sway of “Hurt to Try” that kicks off like something Andy Stochansky might attempt before veering into a sweet pop melody. Here Brosseau fleshes out the tune with drums and electric guitar, not breaking through the surface, but just brimming underneath. It makes for some nice tension as it evolves. There are some spacey keyboards that saunter in near the conclusion too. From there Brosseau gets back to basics on the rootsy “Mary Anne”, which feels like it was nailed on the first take, leaving the listener to provide the percussion with either finger snaps or tapping fingers on some hard surface.
But perhaps the album’s watershed moment comes during a fabulous troubadour tune entitled “Dark Garage”. With Brosseau blowing his harmonica after counting the song in, the tune lends itself easily to comparisons with Dylan with lines about earlier days, playing cards in bicycle spokes and mischief involving clotheslines. A great arrangement with great lyrics makes it easy to nestle into from its onset. However, “Heart of Mine” doesn’t quite measure up with Brosseau reverting to a folksy arrangement where he stresses the lines just a hair too much. Strings are added to give it a haunting flavor, but again even this complement seems, well, forced. It’s a slight bump that is forgettable once “The Broken Ukulele” and its stellar duet begins, bringing to mind Begonias, the recent collaboration between Caitlin Cary and Thad Cockrell. Brosseau does some picking here also during the bridge, but it’s nothing that is jaw dropping.
Brosseau is at his best when he keeps things to a minimum, whether it is instruments or his rudimentary but appealing wordplay, even if it something as mundane as fishing or farming during the strange and somewhat unnerving “How to Grow a Woman from the Ground”. And he drops this little gem of a phrase early in the offering: “The night was a chalkboard with a fingernail moon.” It is also where he hits some of the higher range, effeminate notes crystal clear. Brosseau might not be a household name yet, but it’s these first songs (some of which were included on earlier recordings like Late Night at Largo, North Dakota and a five-song demo entitled Outtakes v. 1) that should make you seek out what else this guy has done. And hopefully continues to do…