Brett Detar, Bird In The Tangle
Maybe it’s just me, but some days it sure feels like every emo/punk frontman is secretly a down-home country troubadour at heart. While I haven’t heard much of what Brett Detar’s “real” band, The Juliana Theory, has been doing the past several years (although I do know they broke up in 2006 and reformed last year), for a while there back in the early 2000s, they were making some awesomely catchy, fist-pumping emo, with Detar providing boyish, fervent vocals. 2000’s Emotion Is Dead was particularly badass; “Don’t Push Love Away” still lives in playlists on my iPod, a decade later.
Fast-forward to now, though, and Detar’s sidestepped away from those shy-boy harmonies and thundering guitars to make Bird In The Tangle, which is unapologetically rootsy and down-home, a far cry from the music on which he and Theory’ve made their collective name. Of course, I can’t fault the guy for wanting to do something different; he was a kid back when I first became a fan of his music, and now he’s in his 30s (and hell, so’m I), so there’s no surprise he doesn’t still want to be howling out lovesick lyrics over the guitars’ roar. (Well, maybe we’ll skip past the “lovesick lyrics” part, but we’ll get to that.)
And for the most part, Detar pulls off the country-boy thing convincingly. It’s plain as day that he really, truly loves that whole ’70s roots-music scene, especially Gram Parsons and Townes Van Zandt, and there’re points on Bird where it feels like he’s paying homage to those influences. The same goes for more old-school country icons like Johnny Cash or Hank Williams — take a listen to the raggedy-edged “The Devil’s Gotta Earn,” with its freight-train rhythms and snarled, love-gone-wrong lyrics, and you’ll hear it.
Far from being a retread, though, the guy’s ended up making not only an album that points backwards towards his heroes but one that points forwards to something else, as well, something all his own. Detar’s rambling, mostly low-key, countrified sound makes me think of Salt Lake City’s wholly-unappreciated Band of Annuals; both play countryish music that grabs little bits and pieces from various other musical genres and thereby becomes something that, while it bears a resemblance, can’t quite be called “country.” It’s Americana, sure, but beneath it’s skin, the music on Bird can’t be pigeonholed quite that easily.
Like Band of Annuals, too, Detar’s music feels almost timeless and classic, in spite of the fact that you’ve likely never heard it before. It’s pretty great throughout, from the gentle, bitterly melancholy roots-folk of “Empty House On A Famous Hill,” with its sublime slide and undeniable chorus, all the way through the Western swing of “This City Dies Tonight” and the heartbreaking yearning of “A Miner’s Prayer,” a meandering “letter” song that painfully, sweetly makes its way almost back home, right to inevitable, tragic end.
“It’s Only The Night” offers up some jangly, pretty, soft-hearted country-folk, gorgeous and fragile (and the wavering, faded-in guitar at the start makes me think of Audioslave’s “I Am The Highway” every time, weirdly enough), while “Road to Ruin Woman” is scuffed-up and low-down, a cautionary tale about being led astray by a wicked, wicked woman. “Coasts,” for its part, is fiery and wonderfully full of righteous anger, even with those gorgeous duet harmonies, and jumping back to “The Devil’s Gotta Earn,” I love the great, great call-and-response break bit and the percussive, almost toneless banjo Detar throws in, too.
Best of all is “Caged Bird,” which strips down all the other songs on here to just Detar’s voice and a guitar, and it seems somewhat like it’s pointing to the loneliness and pain that brought this whole thing about in the first place. The song’s raw and cut wide open, frustrated and angry and shattered all at the same, and Detar sounds like he’s about two steps from breaking down completely, overflowing with regret and self-recrimination.
It’s not necessarily a love song to a person, mind you, but maybe to something else — his previously-broken-up band, maybe? Maybe. Either way, it’s the sound of a man coming apart at the seams, and as awful as that is to experience, it’s something awe-inspiring to witness.