[13 May 2003]
It all seems so easy. Give a guy a guitar, a poignant outlook on life, and a sober voice with which to spin the tales. Title the project something glum—to punctuate the latent sadness that percolates through the music—and add in a smattering of slightly more popular but hardly famous pals. A formula. What could this really erupt?
Well, a lot, potentially. Because pulling the pieces apart on Bitter, Bitter Weeks self-titled debut project, is a lot more difficult than writing a formula for putting them together. Otherwise known as Brian McTear, the artist is a successful indie producer, having worked with Matt Pond PA and Burning Brides, among others. In Philadelphia especially, McTear is also known for his record label (Miner Street Recordings). But on this outing, McTear finds himself on the other side of the divide, stamping out a collection of introspective, rustic indie country, featuring appearances by Matt Pond, Jorge Sandrini (of Eltro), among others.
Bitter, Bitter Weeks is a singer/songwriter, which, for better or for worse, is an accurate description of his project. Though the male embodiment of that genre runs also includes production-prone troubadours like Ed Harcourt, Bitter, Bitter Weeks stays closer to the acoustic folk style of Nick Drake, or the slow boil lo-fi of Iron & Wine. With so few accoutrements to dress up his sound, the album is dependent on his strong, though no-frills guitar work and tangy, slightly twangy tenor. It is also, perhaps sometimes too expectedly, built around the sadder of the emotions, making the disc a poignant first listen, but a bit repetitive upon subsequent ones.
With a title like Bitter, Bitter Weeks, it’s hardly shocking that most of the disc hangs on the slower side of things. The opening number, “Sage”, is a rolling dirge with almost a Celtic feel, patterning a simple melodic line rather than shifting from chorus to verse to chorus. The effect is both startling and moving, with McTear’s vocals running a well-worn groove as they play off the guitar, almost a countermelody but more like a variation. McTear solidifies this strategy on “The Best Days of My Life” and “You Paralyze My Heart”, each achingly poignant in their facility. More intricate numbers like “Daylight Savings Is Over”, jangly “Earthquake”, and soulful “Water in the Basement”, are stand outs on the disc, showcasing McTear’s gripping lyrics and ability to build something magnificent out of simple parts.
Over the course of the record, though, all this brooding begins to take its toll. Bitter, Bitter Weeks is perhaps weighed down by the heft of its own seriousness. Of course, this effect is hardly a drawback if the record is used as therapeutically, as I imagine it often is. But it is certainly a record that has its time and place—that time being a background to your own depression, that place huddled under the covers, alone, on a rainy Sunday.
It’s actually pretty difficult to put together a disc that’s so overfull with believable emotion, and for that reason, Bitter, Bitter Weeks’ debut is a cause for celebration. But that, for certain, is where the celebration ends. What erupts from this album, even in its brighter moments, is a wash of overwhelming, pensive melancholy, which isn’t bad per se, but damn, it is depressing.