Adam Bricks, City Songs
First things first: Adam Bricks is an unabashed, head-held-high folksinger, the kind of musician and songwriter that used to push music forwards but these days gets relegated to the dingy club while vapid electronic beats bounce plasticized pop mannequins around on stage. Now, with that said, he’s decidedly not a countryish, roaming-through-the-woods kind of folkie — City Songs isn’t Fleet Foxes or For Emma, Forever Ago, and thank God for that.
Don’t get me wrong; I’ve got nothing against the whole pastoral-/country-folk thing in general, and I like folks like Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver and Iron & Wine and Noah and the Whale and Mumford & Sons quite a bit. It’s refreshing, nevertheless, to hear folk music that’s rooted not in the bucolic fields and forests but rather in the dirty, neon-lit streets of the naked city.
Bricks himself got his start playing clubs in NYC’s anti-folk scene, which explains a lot about why he sounds the way he does. The guitars may jangle and drift along like Robin Pecknold’s, but there’s a grittiness underlying it that musicians like Pecknold just don’t have (again, not judging, just pointing out the difference). City Songs is exactly what it says it is, for once: it’s a collection of rambling, sideways-smiling, smoky, booze-tinged love songs to The City, that mystifying collection of buildings and bars and alleyways and freeways a lot of us call home.
And despite Bricks’ recent stay in NY, his album is truly an 11-track ode to his hometown, painting a picture of sprawling, confusing, noisy, messy Houston that ignores all that and pulls in close instead, focusing on those aforementioned bars and alleyways and whatnot. In a city where nobody walks, Adam Bricks has written a set of songs for roaming on foot, at night, and it’s goddamned brilliant.
I say this with all sincerity because I have walked this city at night, nearly everywhere I’ve lived within the Loop and without, and it’s always, always, always enthralling, like you’re pulling back the curtain on a play that’s no longer going on and watching the cleaning crew quietly go about doing the stuff you don’t see out in the light.
Houston’s not New York, obviously, or New Orleans, or San Francisco, or any of the other big “story-cities,” but yes, we’ve got our own magical moments, like the well-dressed guy walking down the sidewalk ahead of me late at night in Downtown who suddenly, spontaneously, busts a move for no apparent reason.
Or the wild-eyed guy in the stained t-shirt who I see slide up to a corner, look around to see if he’s being followed, and then pull off his shoe and start talking into it earnestly. Houston has these moments of beautiful strangeness, and it feels to me like Bricks has channeled some of that into his music.
City Songs somehow sounds like the city and the people that live and work and everything else in it; it’s pretty and fragile at times, sure, but it’s still got a raggedy-edged, cracked-sidewalk, crumbled brick-dust vibe to it. You can’t hear this album and think the guy’s singing about his home back in Kentucky, trust me.
The biggest, most obvious touchstone for Bricks, of course, is Bob Dylan. I can’t deny it; there’s a resemblance. More than that, though, what I keep hearing in my head as the guy sings is Lou Reed — there’s a far, far greater resemblance, to my ears, to the VU frontman’s delivery and lyricism, and hey, I’m good with that. There’s also a similar ethos of simplicity, this general feeling that the songs aren’t necessarily complex because they damn well don’t need to be. And yeah, I can get behind that, too.
The most Reed-esque moment comes on the somewhat-surreal, rambling “A Dog,” which jangles its way along like a B-side from one of his early solo albums, but it’s definitely there throughout, like on “Waiter’s Song,” which is the only explicitly “New York” song on here. There’s also an occasional hint of Damien Jurado floating through, especially on the somber goodbye of “Don’t Care If It Rains,” and even a little Glen Hansard on the elegaic “On Your Doorstep.”
Vocally, Bricks makes me think of another of my absolute-favorite songwriters, John K. Samson of The Weakerthans, who like Bricks is himself essentially a troubadour of the city. It comes through strongest on jangly, cheery “Colorado Bar” or on album closer “Kristmas,” which is a “Christmas song,” certainly, but a bleaker one than most of us think of when we hear those words. It’s gentle and swaying and waltz-y, and both the vocals and lyricism remind me of Samson’s, particularly when Bricks declares, “Christmas don’t come / ’til the cops come around.”
By the time City Songs ends, I’m sitting here in the near-dark on the couch, and I’m struck by this urge to just get out, pick up my coat, and head out the door to wander our Southwest Houston streets. No real destination, just meandering along towards nothing at all. And sometimes, yeah, that’s perfectly okay.