[6 May 2004]
The so-called singer-songwriter genre can be rather limiting, an exercise in navel-gazing and narcissism that too often is dull and painful to listen to.
Born of the exhaustion and malaise that set in at the end of the ‘60s, when artists seemed to tire of public statements and the more overtly political attitudes of rock and roll, the singer-songwriter movement opted for a quieter approach, a more personal and inward-looking sensibility.
“The time was ripe for reactionary expressions of frustration, confusion, irony, quiet little confidences, and personal declarations of independence,” Janet Maslin wrote in her essay on the genre for the 1980 edition of The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll.
The hallmark of the music, she wrote, was “a self-absorption complete enough to counterbalance the preceding era’s utopian jive,” a solipsism so complete that its “initial preoccupation with forthrightness and simplicity quickly gave way to the cult of the complex, sly and wholly self-absorbed individual.”
That’s not to say that the genre failed to produce anything of note. On the contrary, singer-songwriters like Jackson Browne, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, and Randy Newman—among many others—did produce some remarkable and expressive work.
The Georgia-born Randall Bramblett is in that vein, a singer-songwriter who avoids the narcissism and solipsism of many of his forebears by writing tightly poetic tunes that ride along the contours of rock, R&B, and jazz. Bramblett has a long history in the music business, having worked with and written for an array of Southern bands and musicians. He was a member of Sea Level, a Southern rock/jazz fusion band, and has worked with the Allman Brothers, Gov’t Mule, Widespread Panic and others, and was a touring member of the reunited Traffic several years ago.
Thin Places, his fifth solo album, is thick with poetic images, an album of desolation and disconnection with its feet firmly planted in rock ‘n’ roll—which, ultimately, is what separates him from the general run of singer-songwriters.
“It ain’t what you thought but look at what you’ve found,” he sings on “Nobody’s Problem”, a song that lingers in some lost past, navigating the difficult passage from then to now, a song thick with pain and suffused with a difficult freedom born of survival.
“When the sun comes up we’ll still be here”, he sings in his gravelly, timeworn voice. “When we’ve had enough we’ll still be here / When the flame is blown we’ll still be here / When it all comes home we’ll still be here”, pressing on the listener a sense not so much of endurance or of hope but of continuance.
On “Black Coat”, he sings of being broken and beaten down—“Drape your wings around me now / Before the sun goes down again / In the end I’m broken down / Underneath the weight of heaven”—a sentiment echoed in the chilling “Chet Baker”: “Do you walk out of your life sometimes / Do you run out to the bareboned streets and hide / Do you get inside your car and drive drive drive.”
Bramblett’s desolation is always tempered by an outward glance, by a sense that he is part of a larger world and, as such, is connected to something larger than himself. In this way, he reminds me most of Jackson Browne—lyrically, “Gotta Stop Somewhere”, with its realization that you have to give to get, reminds me of Browne at his finest.
Musically, however, Bramblett is much more of a rocker, with a heavy jazz influence. His piano and organ lead the way on this disc, crafting a burning, swirling foundation on which this disc builds its emotional urgency. The guitars—Davis Causey, Kenny Greenberg, and Jason Slatton—jump from the speakers and the rhythm section—Shawn Pelton on drums and percussion and Michael Rhodes (who also produces) on bass—keep the songs moving, especially on the syncopated blues of “Gotta Stop Somewhere” and “Black Coat”.
While mid-tempo rockers take up most of the disc, there is a country flavor to some of the songs, such as “Confident Thieves”, with Bramblett’s harmonium being backed by Slatton on acoustic guitar and Rhodes on the upright bass.
Thin Places is a remarkable, vital achievement, the work of a mature songwriter exploring the world around him with an honesty and integrity that seem missing in a time of callowness and shallow, market-driven pop.
It deserves the broadest possible audience.