Randall Brambletts 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 doesnt 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 whats 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.
Not a bad beginning! The ninth line, starting the bridge, finally does include the namesake phrase -- "you and me were confident thieves." But what makes them thieves, let alone confident ones, never becomes clear. The bridge continues,
"Stealing" ones way is a different form of the verb "to steal" from the stealing that makes one a thief, but this isnt a play on words. Nor do I hear in any other part of the song what might make the songs "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. Im not applying a dogma that art must always offer a coherent whole, but I do find this discs 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 "Im comin round soon" to work as a refrain:
Not a corny, dishonest message like, "Now Ive learned my lesson and Im going to do everything right"; just a simple affirmation that its 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 Brambletts credit, he doesnt 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 Dylans 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 -- its the special combination of words and music that make them such good songs.
My take on Brambletts 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 writers not being able to get out of the corner his opening lines put him in, as Robert Frost described the poets 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 "im comin round soon" and less on such frankly flatulent, heavy-but-meaningless ones as "theres a ravelin thread in the old ragtop," "im just a string of pearls on the side of the road," "and the ink bleeds through cause youre 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.
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