|Brian Rose - Album Review |
Fast Folk, April 1993
Volume 7, No. 1 - April 1993
The Fast Folk Musical Magazine was record/magazine that was produced sporadically during the 1980s and early 90s. It was songwriter Jack Hardy's idea, and he and I edited the magazine for the first year.
The Smithsonion Institute has preserved these recordings, and an album of "best hits" is available. Go here.
by Jim Allen
Go to information about Jim Allen
Longtime subscribers to this magazine are probably already familiar with the work of Brian Rose. His songs have frequently been featured in Fast Folk since its inception, and he has been a mainstay of the annual Fast Folk Revue at the Bottom Line. Recently, Rose made available a collection of eleven of his songs, spanning various phases of his songwriting career.
This eponymously-entitled cassette affords the uninitiated the opportunity to encounter the full breadth of Rose's musical vision. Many of the songs here are touched by poetry without sounding overwrought or hyperliterary. Rose has the gift of making the commonplace seem almost mystical through his adroit lyricism. In "The Street," he uses the everyday images of an unremarkable urban landscape in a manner that transforms those details into something more: "From the roof there is splendor, a city in the sky / Lost to the skylight's dull-witted eye / As she plants her feet on the concrete sod / She says to her husband, we are closer to God." While elevating the mundane to the spiritual, Rose nevertheless maintains the evenhanded objectivity that is present in much of his work.
In the song's chorus, he sings, "There is a street of hope / There is a street of despair / There is a street balanced 'tween neglect and care." Here as in many of his songs, Rose takes the role of impartial observer, drawing no conclusions, offering no opinions, and making no statement save that which is created by focusing the listener's attention on a particular situation. In this, one is reminded of the Jack Hardy lyric, "Anything is a work of art if you take the time to frame it." Often the characters and scenarios chosen are not the ones that seem ostensibly ripe for artistic plucking, yet Rose has the ability to make them resonate.
Two of the most powerful songs here employ this technique from opposite ends of the narrative lens. "Old Factory Town" is a first-person account of a day in the life of an unexceptional man. We find him lying in bed before dawn, dreaming of nothing more exciting than the local watchman making his rounds. He rises to the familiar din and clatter of his wife and children in the house. We see him punch into his job at the factory "where I cast the clappers of church steeple bells," and then retire to the bar when the whistle blows. Night time finds him dreaming once more, this time "of the clamor of all the church bells / Cast in iron and brass at J.T. McTell."
"Old Factory Town" is the most emotionally charged song here precisely because it seems on the surface to be so devoid of emotion. At no time does the narrator give us an indication that he has any feeling whatsoever about the events that make up his daily life. It's through the expert use of minimalism, a technique which has blossomed in the hands of everyone from Miles Davis to Raymond Carver, that Rose makes these images speak for themselves. As is the minimalist tradition, that which is left unspoken speaks the loudest. The narrator is so completely absorbed by the mundanity and empty horror of his life that he cannot even step outside himself to describe it. Even his dreams are occupied by the same flat, bleak visions that pervade his conscious mind. We learn more about this man's life by what he doesn't tell us than we ever could from his most effusive observations. Clothed in a traditional-sounding, minor-key melody perfectly punctuated by bell-like synthesizer tones, the song is easily the centerpiece of the collection, even though it comes at the very end.
On "Open All Night," a similar narrative device is used, this time in the third person. Rose depicts the goings-on in a late-night diner, observing from a distance the waitress, the patrons, and the passersby outside--"There's news of a murder up at 14th and T and the waitress shivers with fright. "Just outside the door, "the street is a minefield for the ex-soldier with the tattooed arm." Again, Rose makes no statement about these characters and draws no conclusions. The effect is highly atmospheric, reminiscent of nothing so much as an Edward Hopper painting (say, "Nighthawks") describing the scene from outside while placing you smack dab in the middle, making you feel rather than see the loneliness and isolation.
There isn't space enough here to examine all the different approaches that Rose employs in his songs, but there is one composition in particular which differs so markedly from the rest that it shouldn't pass without comment. "Cities on the Aerial Paths of Communication" is a song about the idealistic utopianism of turn-of-the-century Russia before the coming of Stalin. In sharp contrast to some of the more spartan offerings here, "Cities" is a wildly imagistic, almost surreal song which attempts to encompass a broad subject through poetic twists and turns. Rose lets loose the literary muse that he holds in check on most other songs, delivering lines like "architects descend the Odessa Steps to their blueprint islands on the Black Sea." Wisely, there is little attempt at making these lyrics scan metrically. Rather, they float freely over the dissonant chord progressions that are often Rose's trademark, creating an element of tension.
It's easy to have mixed emotions about a song like this. On one hand, it may be a bold piece of work that forsakes convention in pursuit of high art. On the other, it may be unforgivably highbrow and impossibly pretentious. I prefer to think that it's both, wonderful and irritating at the same time, but regardless, one must respect the artistic courage that it takes to write a song like this. The important thing is that Rose is not afraid to take chances, or to venture far enough out to reach for what is otherwise unattainable. This alone is more than enough of a reason for anyone interested in originality and inspiration to seek out this recording.
The Fast Folk Musical Magazine 1993