(Self-released, digital download)
Let’s imagine Beck, Tom Waits and the ghost of Charles Bukowski meet at a bar. After wading through rivers of whiskey, they contemplate the kind of band they would start — y’know, if Chuck were still alive. There’s no shortage of bluntly poetic, lowlife lyrical content about women and the devil. Tom likely infuses a bit of bleary-eyed, piano-lounge blues, while Beck messes around with samples, beats and other sonic playthings. As the booze flows, the conversation becomes more animated, the ideas more outlandish and crude. Then, Tom picks up the haggard barmaid, who was probably a beauty before years of hard living stole her youth. Chuck passes out after vomiting on his pants. Beck does… whatever Beck does. And they forget about the whole thing by morning.
But in a dark corner of this dive, a guy named Josh Brooks sits at a table furiously hashing out notes, enthralled by the conversation he’s witnessing, and sipping mint juleps. (Just because, OK?)
After last call, Brooks runs to his Vermont home and begins working on a record under the name Dead Creek Singers. He calls it Curmudgeon. It has a “Parental Advisory Explicit Content” warning sticker on the cover.
Obviously, the preceding story is pure fiction. But Brooks’ record is very real. I have no idea how he devised Curmudgeon. Maybe I don’t want to know. But it is one of the strangest and most dangerously engrossing local albums in recent memory.
Brooks, perhaps better known for his roles in the comparatively genial Grant Black and Panton Flats, surrounds himself with all manner of stylistic wickedness, from gnarled, backwoods blues to demented hip-hop beats and beyond. But the crux of the record centers on his warped, irascible poetry, which reads like something ol’ Chuck might have scribbled on the back of a racing form and tossed in the trash.
On the title track Brooks intones, “Mean old man with the rattling bone, take it to the limit and you leave it alone. / Grinding aphrodisiacs, snail and pills, running up the Skinemax and burning the bills.”
From “Hawdawgdancin’”: “Hot dog dancing, boogie romancing, mama I’m gonna make you m’bop like Hanson.”
From “Solitaire”: “Hey, I’m 37, how are you? A panty and a shoe. The vomit on the lawn, tomorrow you’re already gone. … Oh, the magic of solitaire.”
Brooks is no latterday Bukowski. But his heart is in the right place, which is to say the absolute wrong place. Curmudgeon is a harrowing descent to the outer edges of the male psyche, where self-destruction is its own hypnotic drug.
We romanticize Bukowski because he embodied a damaged persona we all imagine exists within us someplace. Brooks manages to convey that idea throughout the album, but nowhere more clearly, and disturbingly, than on his overt ode, “Bukowski.” Here he tells us, “It’s an ordinary madness, mother…”
Curmudgeon by Dead Creek Singers is available at joshbrooksmusic.com. Brooks plays the WalkOver Gallery in Bristol on Saturday, February 23, with Pete Sutherland.