Chris Brokaw and Geoff Farina may well be the two best guitarists indie rock has had to offer in the past two-plus decades. Brokaw’s moody layering with slowcore pioneers Codeine and the brilliantly heavy Come made for the kind of expansive atmosphere new guitarists are still trying to figure out. Meanwhile, Farina’s jazzy post-rock for Karate was all about the tangled solos, the crazy time signatures, and the raw edge of emotion.
They’re two styles that wouldn’t necessarily mesh well, but these are also two players with a breadth of talent: Brokaw’s solo acoustic work and Farina’s folkier approach in his current band, Glorytellers, have shown they’re capable of making any noise they want. So, when they joined forces to make The Angels’ Message to Me, the two bombastic guitar players opted for something a bit more understated.
All the songs on this record are pre-World War II country blues songs; some — like “Stagger Lee” and “Oh Death” — are well-known standards, while others are a bit more obscure. It’s an interesting idea, of course, to take songs from the Depression era and bring them back to life in our own depressed (or depressing) times. But what is refreshing about Brokaw and Farina’s work here is that they don’t bring some sort of savvy modern twist to these songs. They play them straight. They play them with a hushed intimacy. And they play them awfully well.
As vocalists, the two were really built for this kind of singing. Brokaw, in particular, shines when his barely rasped voice takes on the road-weary narrator of the excellent “Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor”, or acts as the narrator to the deathly tale of “Stagger Lee”. Farina has got a more honeyed sway to his singing, and acts as a nice counterpoint to Brokaw’s smokier delivery. The way Farina drags out the words on, say, “In the Evening” pulls us into the song’s sad shuffle. Meanwhile, on “St. John’s Infirmary Blues” — Farina’s finest performance on the record — he keeps his sweet voice, but cuts it with an affecting, bitter edge.
The guitar playing is unsurprising in its excellence, since we expect nothing less from these two at this point. There is, however, very little in the way of flashy playing here. The two play these covers faithfully, as two-part country blues numbers, and they weave riffs between each other. Their wonderful interplay is most evident on the instrumental pieces here. The title track, and album opener, is in one way a bright, pastoral porch stomper. In another way, though, the way the notes ring out creates a subtle yet thick atmosphere that hangs over the whole record. It is at its most dark on “Oh Death”, which the two deliver as an instrumental dirge. They somehow convey all the song’s fear of mortality, but, without the grasping desperation of the words, the song takes on a disturbing reservation.
It’s these small, almost imperceptible decisions that render these songs fresh in the hands of Brokaw and Farina. A watery electric guitar on “St. John’s Infirmary Blues”, or the quiet hum of an organ in the background of a song, or the sweet vocal harmonies on “That’ll Never Happen No More” will catch you off guard and show a glimpse of the care these guys took with each song. As effortless as the playing sounds, it is these little flourishes that put their fingerprints on these old standards.
As for the concept of the album — recasting pre-WWII songs for today’s troubled times — the duo smartly shy away from being too ham-handed with themes of economic depression. People sleep on their floor, they drink too much to fend off the worry, they got nothing but their baby left. But these are songs about love, about mortality, about more cosmic losses, and the economic worries just fill out the landscape around them. So while some might hope to find comfort in the knowledge that people have survived hardship before and come out stronger, the real comfort on The Angel’s Message to Me is in the players themselves. Brokaw and Farina, so capable of blowing us away in the past, instead invite us in, and play a beautiful and timeless set of songs. And in the hands of such innovative musicians, it’s easy to see why even the humblest of these songs has stuck around for so long.