Nine Black Paintings
'Dreams don't die in the town, they just don't get far' - Niel Brooks, 'Night'. From day one, Niel Brooks was in the middle of a story. His mother was scheduled to deliver Niel on Christmas Day, but the family doctor told them he was going on vacation. If they wanted him, it was now or never via induced labor. So Niel Brooks was born. Sure, it's not on the level of Athena emerging fully-formed from the head of Zeus, but it established Brooks' penchant for living in interesting times. It would only be a few short decades before he was hanging out with characters like Bubba the Greek and being ushered out of a late-night diner to evade the wrath of a midget prostitute. In between, though, Brooks grew up in a textile mill village, which isn't anything special in South Carolina, where generations have been born and laid to rest among rows of practical, crowded houses. Each of those generations has also watched a way of life fade away. The occasional textile mill still exists alongside rusted railroad tracks, but mostly as a target for arsonists. If you're a young man of an artistic temperament, such things leave an imprint -- and in this case, in Brooks' songs. Niel Brooks isn't a political singer. He doesn't sing songs that name names or pick a side. Instead, he shows the human cost of the world around us: the small towns shuttering their windows, the men and women cracking under the pressure of present difficulties or past traumas, the pervading sense of unease that hums in the air like an engine running too hot -- for too long. If you were there at the coffeehouse-haunting start of Brooks' solo career, you saw an artist who grew stronger with each performance, and who gradually reconciled his musician's love of uniqueness with his ingrained southern-appreciation for a story told efficiently and well. That found him harnessing his ability to play guitar like a "sumbitch" with the demands of rootsy song-craft. At the start of his solo career, with 2002's Static Sessions, Brooks followed in the footsteps of heroes like Steve Earle and Woody Guthrie, exploring the simple but potent possibilities of guitar, voice, and harmonica (as well as the faint ambient hiss of his home's radiators) to lend weight to tales of tragedy like 'Satellite Road' (with evocative lines like 'he was humming the tune to 'Redheaded Stranger' / She never heard a sound') and songs of simple dissolution like 'Barn Burning' ('You might think the world could end tonight / It's a start / It's a start'). With Nine Black Paintings, Brooks uses the traditionalism of Static Sessions as a jumping-off point for experiments with exotic percussion, homemade instruments, and a sinister vibe that trails in the wake of late-night shades. It is an album that swings from the dark, rollicking accessibility of 'Galveston Girl' to the rain-on-the-cobblestones creepiness of 'A Strange Limousine.' At the album's heart, though, is the quiet song-for-our-times grandeur of 'Woody Guthrie (Where Have You Gone)', a song that mixes oblique political references like 'There's a crow in the witch-corn/And the devil's in the barn' with a clarion call for the spirit of Guthrie to return. It's the sound of an artist wishing that giants would once again walk the earth, but it's also the sound of a nation seeking it's lost voice. With Niel Brooks, you get songs that straddle different domains like that, which mix the personal with the universal. And as strong as Nine Black Paintings is, it excites the listener for what Brooks will accomplish next. --Andrew Gilstrap.