Damien Jurado

Ghost of David
(Sub Pop)

Musicians really shouldn't do press if they don't want their words to come back to haunt them. In the case of Seattle singer-songwriter Damien Jurado, he'll be living with Nick Drake comparisons for some time; his frequent admission that Drake's second release, 1970's Bryter Layter, is one of his two all-time favorite folk records practically guarantees it. (Oddly, interviewers have failed to press Jurado on the other LP he mentioned, Simon and Garfunkel's magnificent Bookends. Guess that's too square for most hipsters.) The problem being, of course, that now, any folk singer with a wispier-than-thou, pre-Prozac sound is embraced by today's New Depressive Generation of indiecentrics regardless of context or musical worth, making possible some serious sad-sack conceit en route to mutual artist/fan electroshock therapy sessions. It's no coincidence that this guy decided to issue, in between Ghost of David and his second Sub Pop full-length (last year's Rehearsals for Departure), an album's worth of "recovered cassette tapes" with no music -- telephone conversations, answering-machine messages, taped love letters -- titled Postcards and Audio Letters. Sheesh.

At any rate, while it's true that Jurado's plaintive warble, lyrical introspection and one man/one guitar image does suggest Drake on occasion -- in fact, opening cuts "Medication" and "Desert" bear more than a hint of the unadorned starkness that marked Drake's '72 swan song Pink Moon -- he's got more dimensions to him that are worth exploring. Occasionally, he'll dip into a lower-pitched drawl that, wedded to a general catch-lightning-in-a-jar recording approach, recalls Skip Spence (the solo Spence of 1969's Oar, not the Moby Grape-era Spence); check the spooky "Great Today" with its lo-fi guitar/organ/snare drum arrangement and echoed vocals. Other times he resorts to a midrangey timbre that suggests a less refined Tim Buckley: the swooping nuances contained in "Johnny Go Riding," for example, or the edgy blare he adopts in "Paxil" (two of David's more accessible, and rocking, numbers, incidentally).

So it's a more diverse album than its two predecessors, musically speaking; what of Jurado's lyrical muse? Well, she's still fluttering near his meds cabinet, at least part of the time. In "Paxil," for example, Jurado screams manically, "Maybe I might go South/There's no telling what we'll do/My head's on fire"; while in "Johnny Go Riding," his titular protagonist hesitantly confides, "Really, I don't think I'm ready/To leave this house of mine/You go out and tell them/I'm not the social kind." And the deceptively lovely "Tonight I Will Retire" (which features Pedro the Lion's David Bazan on piano and drums) initially appears to be a simple ode to the joys of domesticated bliss ("Tonight I will retire/To the arms of my lover/She will give me the sweetest kiss/As I lay down beside her"), but as the song unfolds, troubling intimations of impending death, and perhaps suicide ("These hands/With revolver"), crop up. At the same time, Jurado shows signs of turning into a downright well-adjusted, productive citizen. "Desert" contains the promising lines "Tell me when tomorrow comes/I'll be the first to ride/Start the car and honk the horn/I'll be right outside," and later he admits that he's "seen the brighter side/Of the roads that lead to Hell." He's even secure enough in his craft to hand over the reins of one song to another singer, Rosanne Thomas, and while the loving you/leaving you sentiments of "Parking Lot" aren't exactly upbeat, she infuses Jurado's lyrics with a wry, sunlit ambiance.

If Jurado persists in flouting his media-heightened image of patheticness -- and Sub Pop has been eagerly complicit in matters of marketing, too -- he'll eventually find he's painted himself into an artistic corner. Luckily, there are enough encouraging moments on Ghost of David to suggest he's aware of the self-limiting nature of image. Maybe that's just called "growing up"; after all, life can look pretty shitty when you're a kid, and kids tend to wear their misery on their sleeves. Here's hoping Jurado's audience will grow with him.

 
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