Damien Jurado & Gathered in Song

Much mediocre music is the product of dilettantes feigning artistry in order to get laid. This may be truer of bad folk music or indie rock than sorry specimens of other genres, as both subcultures eschew commercialism. So it's almost a revelation to find a truly unassuming and creative soul thriving in either subculture, much less bridging both. Damien Jurado, however, poses a challenge to all stripes of hacks with ulterior motives.

On I Break Chairs, as on his previous three LPs, Jurado's observations of fear and romantic yearning are too heart-wrenching to be merely sensitive. "I won't pretend not to see you looking and I'll smile and walk the other way," he sings, in his powerful, unadorned lilt that evokes a male Liz Phair, or at times a young Dave Alvin. His is the perspective of the loser for whom introspection is a curse, rather than a means for cruising coffeehouses. In "Like Titanic," Jurado describes the indiscretions of a wild girlfriend, with an elegant line--"I don't know the meaning of 'no trespassing'"--that simultaneously resents her intrusions and identifies with her spunk. So many similar songs, like Everclear's "Heroin Girl," merely serve to advertise their singers' own edginess.

At times, Jurado's poetic minimalism can be inscrutable on the page--one chorus goes, "If I ever lose my head, don't ever let me lose my head." But that's where the music comes in. "Never Ending Tide" repeats one line like a mantra--"She's gonna move you like a never-ending tide"--but combined with a subtle feedback hum that builds to thunder, it evokes romantic immersion more powerfully than any narrative could. Atmospherics, however, take a backseat to the album's tuneful, experimental roots-rock. In "Like Titanic," a ragged, catchy guitar riff is braided with chiming, woozy atonalities. "Castles" and "Birdcage" merge Sonic Youth and Crazy Horse into one punky, avant-rustic sound. And "Big Deal" is driving, major-key guitar-pop that couldn't have fit on any of Jurado's previous, quieter albums.

With an idol like Phil Ochs, the most soul- and mystique-bearing of the '60s Greenwich Village crowd, and music that's been compared to indie heroes Elliott Smith and Sunny Day Real Estate, Damien Jurado would seem to have quite a cachet with the ladies. But even if he weren't married and/or Christian, it's hard to believe he could be less than sincere--and the forthright sentiments and down-to-earth innovation of I Break Chairs illustrate why.


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