Whilst Chris Brokaw’s collaborative roles, as both a full band member (in Codeine, Come, Pullman et al.) and an on-hire guest-player (for Evan Dando, Steve Wynn, Karate, ad infinitum), have been quite easily definable, his solo career – which began around the turn of the decade – has been far harder to pin-down and pigeon-hole. Zigzagging through wordless eclectic guitar/drum exhilaration (2002’s Red Cities), warm unplugged singer-songwriter terrain (2003’s Wandering As Water), murky soundtrack mood-setting (2004’s I Was Born But…), curveball-throwing folk-rock (2005’s Incredible Love), and most recently, inside-out electro-acoustic experimentation with a penchant for atonal dronescapes (2008’s Canaris and 2009’s Gracias, Ghost Of The Future), Brokaw hasn’t made it easy to keep up with his seemingly still embryonic one-man journey. Although this latest LP, for an all-acoustic-guitar and vinyl/download-only series on a fledgling New York label (Vin Du Select Qualitite) may not be the definitive Brokaw collection it does at least come closer to boiling down his talents into a rich and well-rounded essence.
By rooting himself to one spot (his home studio) and one instrument (a 12-string acoustic guitar, albeit multi-tracked and sometimes heavily-treated), for this functionally-titled vocal-free album, Brokaw finds a renewed melodic focus as well as rediscovering his gifts for diversity. It’s easy to make lazy connections with the post-folk wares of Pullman throughout the set, but Brokaw cuts deeper and wider than the long-dormant group’s often more restrained and narrower reach. Side A’s flickering meditative opener, “God’s Forgotten Rooster,” may pay a near-obligatory direct homage to the godhead of solo-acoustic exploration, John Fahey, but from thereon in it’s a less straightforward ride. The joyous jangle-strum of “Out My Window” slides in some lovely Latin vibes that also reappear across a balmy cover of Spanish-Danish songstress Christina Rosenvinge’s “Dream Room.” Elsewhere, the desert-rock edginess of Red Cities reappears on the gripping rustics of “Spy Pond,” the viciously-ragged “We’ll See You All At Oki Dogs” flashes fleetingly back to Come’s dense Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and the cyclical ruminations of “Midnight” cross-reference Jim O’Rourke’s Bad Timing.
The flipside is equally unpredictably, yet still sturdily-underpinned, stretching the restrictive instrumentation remit to even more imaginative breaking-points. Hence, “The Rule Of Ten” merges urban ‘80s 4AD aesthetics with rural dread; the percussive “Undrum” imagines an irregular heartbeat heard through rotten floorboards; and “Russian White Bear” wades itself into desolate Dead Can Dance waters. To offset the encroaching darkness of the second side, lighter and more traditional tones come through a fresh take on oft-covered blues-folk standard “Death Don’t Have No Mercy” and a heavily-deconstructed revision of Brokaw’s own “Blues For The Moon” (previously heard with vocals attached on Incredible Love).
Overall, VDSQ: Solo Acoustic Volume Three benefits from an infectious intimacy that few others could sustain without slipping into self-indulgence. Moreover, by concluding his first full decade as a soloist with such a delicious and hearty stew of wordless yet lyrical nuggets, Chris Brokaw proves that his long-haul trajectory is well-worth following into the 2010s.