Damien Jurado: Caught in the Trees

Ross Langager

Jurado's idiom is as worn and familiar as a favored old coffee table.

Damien Jurado

Caught in the Trees

Label: Secretly Canadian
US Release Date: 2008-09-08
UK Release Date: 2008-10-27

In a rare moment of piercing clarity on the last New Pornographers album, the eternally disheveled Dan Bejar wailed out "I'm sick of America / and its screaming decay". The image is one of bizarre double-inscription, an internal contradiction that mirrors the myriad oxymorons that underlie contemporary American experience. How can decay scream? How can screams accompany decay? And how useful a reaction to this state is Bejar's disgusted rejection of it? Listening to Caught in the Trees, it becomes apparent that Damien Jurado has worked through the problem and decided that the best response to screaming decay is to craft weary narratives of sad defeat and impart them in darkly inviting tones.

Jurado's idiom is as worn and familiar as a favored old coffee table. Acoustic-indie trappings predominate: guitar picking, strings, brushed drums, wistful harmonizing between Jurado and longtime bandmate Jenna Conrad. The distinctions that make or break any artist in this world have everything to do with either lyrical acumen, vocal skill, or both. Luckily for Jurado, he's a dead ringer at both, a sure hand with expressions of exquisitely direct aching who likewise possesses a breathy timbre in his phrasing that deepens its technical limitations (which are transcended by the potent sustained notes of "Paper Kite").

Iron & Wine is an obvious touchstone, and Springsteen comparisons are common enough, too. Indeed, the latter formed the backbone of my PopMatters colleague Dave Heaton's review of Jurado's 2006 Secretly Canadian release, And Now That I'm in Your Shadow. But Jurado's voice reminds me more of the Hold Steady's Craig Finn (an admitted Springsteen acolyte), albeit without Finn's undeniable edge and lyrical focus on the party community. Jurado gazes more inwardly and finds no constructive summers or massive nights, only caskets, paper kites, and coats of ice.

Perhaps the most stunning display of his powers is on the mid-album elegy "Last Rights". Hovering in on Conrad's haunted cello, Jurado coos indelible phrases in a surprising, affecting melody. "I'm not a bird / catch and release" he begins, wending his way to the fatal mini-refrain, "It's easy to land / but harder to fall". He even addresses the essential fallacy of most critical analyses of the sensitively-attuned song narratives of "personal" songwriters: "playing for keeps / the characters are real". After all, one critic's fiction is another artist's painful reality.

This is not to say that Jurado is capable of nothing else beyond downbeat balladry. Lead track and single "Gillian Was a Horse" rides big-chord strumming and reminiscences of high-school dance escorts and kissing booths to a comfortable median between toe-tapper and potboiler, at least until the tragic ending. "Caskets" and "Coats of Ice" crescendo with tension-slicing guitar stabs, and the latter opens sardonically with a darkly comic verse: "You'll be happy to know / the situation is worse / the endless bottles of pills / that never seem to work". "Best Dress" is a lyrical exhortation to dance if not remotely a musical one, but the resonant production and straightforward co-ed blues harmonizing makes for a striking final product, redolent of the best moments of Robert Plant and Alison Krauss' memorable collaboration with T. Bone Burnett last year. The general approach is neither one of obscure experimentation nor rehashed, glad-handing compromise, but lies blissfully in the middle, enfolding indie innovation with recognizable convention.

But how does Seattle's Jurado and his musical emplacement jive with the aforementioned "screaming decay"? Few records coming out of the indie world are less political than Caught in the Trees, but even not being political is a political act, when you parse it. In his retreat to the personal, is Jurado copping out, abandoning social responsibility for introspective longing? Or is his longing not introverted but extroverted, excavating not inside himself but inside of us for elusive nuggets of glinting emotional gold, prospecting for collective redemption? Or maybe he's just writing songs of simple, lovely bereavement, the kind of songs that will always be pregnant with significance to besieged psyches in need of as many green pier-lanterns as possible to survive the long nights of this new century. In the midst of "Dimes", Jurado sings, "somehow my voice / is caught in the trees". Obstructed though it is, it's our voice, too. Not the only one, but one of them. And it speaks about decay in a tone much quieter and truer than a scream.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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