Because Songs Matter

Tom Brosseau – North Dakota Impressions (2016) By Morgan Enos

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of pieces written for Nine Bullets by special guest artists, creators and other friends of the site. Morgan Enos fronts the bands Other Houses, Enos and Hollow Sunshine.

At his best, Los Angeles, California’s, Tom Brosseau is a songwriter with one foot planted in the future and another in the distant past. This became clear to me in March of 2016, when my friend/fellow songwriter Randall Sena and I had the opportunity to share a stage with Brosseau at Stone Pine Hall, a local community center in Lompoc, California.

Dressed to the nines in vintage wear and harmonica-racked, the man looked and sounded more like a turn-of-the-century folk troubadour than someone of our time and context. Brosseau leaned moreso on tunes by Blind Blake and The Carter Family than his own formidable songbook, as if he was more interested in channeling his forebearers than promoting his latest album at the time, Perfect Abandon (2015).

Perfect Abandon hit a sweet spot for his idiosyncratic, time-and-space-shifting lyrical style. The opener from that record, “Hard Luck Boy,” was a jaw-dropper, in which Brosseau casually told the story of his mother abandoning him in a department store. And the whole record was backed by a simple trio arrangement that could have been featured on a Buddy Holly record in 1957. This is the axis that Brosseau balances on a songwriter, between sleek modernity and a museum curio, a tribute to folk music’s past.

North Dakota Impressions is billed in its Crossbill Records press release as the last in a trilogy of Brosseau albums through the lens of the past. Grass Punks (2014) and Perfect Abandon precede the record. This concept is mined once more on Impressions, a set of tunes about Brosseau’s Midwestern upbringing. However, the mood is breezier than that of Punks and Abandon; it more closely matches Brosseau’s current life while simultaneously touching on his past. Today, he’s a celebrated performer at ease in his new Los Angeles digs. The album may be a collection of musical tales of cornfields, rurality and the nature of home, but the pristine production values and sense of sophisticated sheen mostly make me want to cruise through the Hollywood Hills, alone, in a convertible.

Most major songwriters reach a point where they look toward the past, finding inspiration from their upbringings. So, what separates Impressions from the rest of the pack? Recent indie albums billed as nostalgic — Okkervil River’s The Silver Gymnasium (2013) and Sun Kil Moon’s Benji (2014) — plumbed the depths of familial tragedy and the unreliability of memory. Brosseau’s childhood reflections on North Dakota Impressions, on the other hand, are unspecific and easy-going in a way that can border on anodyne.

“Folks around here are hard-working and good,” he plainly sings in “A Trip To Emerado.” “There’s a general esteem for one another,” he adds. “The Horses Will Not Ride, The Gospel Will Not Be Spoken” is about a burned-down church in Brosseau’s native state, but the facts about the event are merely reported on, with only one aside of self-awareness: “I’m guilty now, and I don’t know why/My heart is kinda broken.”

Impressions is performed and recorded pristinely (courtesy of producer Sean Watkins of Nickel Creek) and a wonderfully calming listen. More than any recent Brosseau release, it resembles its warm, effusive maker’s personality, which I observed in Brosseau’s demeanor and onstage patter at the Lompoc show. One might wish for Brosseau to delve deeper into those feelings of guilt, nostalgia and lost identity that he touches on. But even if they might breeze by the listener before they’re meaningfully mapped onto his or her own beginnings, these songs feel refreshing and pure.

– Morgan Enos
Keep up with Morgan on his
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