May 2004

Randall Bramblett - Thin Places
New West Records NW6050
Released: 2004

by David Cantor

Musical Performance ***
Recording Quality ***
Overall Enjoyment ***

Randall Bramblett’s Thin Places contains some interesting writing and solid performing, but it is thin on clear, direct communication. The collection is not at all unpleasant to listen to, and it doesn’t boldly announce any big problems. I listen to every disc countless times before submitting my reviews – I swear! But it took me an unusual number of listens and lyric read-throughs to find what’s missing from this one.

"Confident Thieves," from the middle of the album, illustrates my point. In and of itself, the visual image of "barbed wire stars" in a song about thieves invites the listener to recognize this is not conventional pop about wanting, losing, or missing someone -- nor is its subject anything else on the usual short list of themes.

a whipsmart smile and a rusty dream
pullin roses from the rain down on i-16
down here somethin is about to give
and the barbed wire stars whisper I might live

Not a bad beginning! The ninth line, starting the bridge, finally does include the namesake phrase -- "you and me we’re confident thieves." But what makes them thieves, let alone confident ones, never becomes clear. The bridge continues,

we’ve never been caught and we never will be
we steal our way through the chain smoke wind
and we’ll go back home where we have never been.

"Stealing" one’s way is a different form of the verb "to steal" from the stealing that makes one a thief, but this isn’t a play on words. Nor do I hear in any other part of the song what might make the song’s "you and me" any kind of literal or metaphorical thieves. The lyrics move on to apparently unrelated images we have not yet heard: "iceberg drunks are driftin' slow and tired,";"the silver moon hangs on circus wires," and more. But wait a minute! If the moon hangs on circus wires, what happened to the "barbed wire stars" that suggested a prison, not a circus?

This tendency to add image upon image rather than to develop the songs’ opening details into a coherent whole may strike some as innovative or energetic, but I mainly experience the lack of a that coherent whole. I’m not applying a dogma that art must always offer a coherent whole, but I do find this disc’s songs to be musical and well performed, yet unsatisfying.

The most successful track is "Comin ‘Round Soon" -- though, perhaps ironically, it lacks the striking visual images contained in the other songs. Taking the basic human experience of struggling through difficult times, this one puts the succinct assertion "I’m comin ‘round soon" to work as a refrain:

draggin ‘round town with a broken heart
people tell me that i’ve lost my spark
maybe they’re right but i’m comin ‘round soon


as soon as i get it all planned out right
i’m gonna live a long and sinful life
don’t give up on me
‘cause i’m comin ‘round soon ….

Not a corny, dishonest message like, "Now I’ve learned my lesson and I’m going to do everything right"; just a simple affirmation that it’s not "so wrong to want to buy a little time" -- the kind of thing that often works in popular music when played well and not belabored, as in this case. And much to Bramblett’s credit, he doesn’t belabor the material I find less successful, either.

Often intent and product are two different things when it comes to art. The objective of being a poet is indubitably a worthy one. But writing poetry is extremely difficult -- few who intend it actually create it. Popular and folk music had long and valid histories before Bob Dylan’s arrival put into countless heads the notion that singer-songwriters must be poets to be worth listening to. Thousands of the best songs are anything but poetry -- it’s the special combination of words and music that make them such good songs.

My take on Bramblett’s songs -- seven of the eleven on Thin Places were written with Jason Slatton, who also sings backup and plays guitar on the album -- is that their strengths come from a musical gift, particularly in the areas of structure, timing, and pacing, their weaknesses from the writer’s not being able to get out of the corner his opening lines put him in, as Robert Frost described the poet’s struggle.

Bramblett sings well and is also competent on keyboard and saxophone. He has fine backing musicians, including Shawn Pelton, who provides distinctive licks on drums, and David Causey on electric guitar. But verbal puffery of the songs seems to have the players all dressed up with nowhere to go, since I think they would be hard-put to know what most of the songs are communicating.

By focusing more on straightforward lines like "i’m comin ‘round soon" and less on such frankly flatulent, heavy-but-meaningless ones as "there’s a ravelin’ thread in the old ragtop," "i’m just a string of pearls on the side of the road," "and the ink bleeds through ‘cause you’re paper thin," and so many others, Bramblett might become more creative rather than only unusual or striking. The other option would be to struggle much harder and longer to develop the lyrics, so that the unconventional lines are not left hanging like a coffee mug on a blood-green gallows.