Before I had heard a single note of this enchanting album my interest in it was piqued by the involvement, concerning ‘additional recording,’ of Dan Goldman. The creator of two brilliant, criminally overlooked chamber-pop albums, the uber-talented Goldman and I crossed paths some years ago when he, performing as Luxury Pond, and his wife Daniela Gesundheit, popularly known as Snowblink, played a ludicrously poorly promoted, yet astonishing show in the town of Duncan, on Vancouver Island, for an audience of just my wife and I. You could say it was intimate.
But I digress. Concerning the matter in hand, the coincidentally intimate collection of bewitching songs to which Goldman has lent his studio prowess are the work of St. Catharines, Southern Ontario, independent folk artist, Brittany Brooks. Recording as Creature Speak since the 2013 release of her third EP, Brooks’ project was formerly known as Howler, my guess being that she dropped that moniker to avoid confusion with the Minneapolis indie rock hopefuls of the same name. The choice of the cryptic, enigmatic appellation Creature Speak undoubtedly suits Brooks’ material far better.
On her muted grey Bandcamp page Brooks describes herself as “crooning stories of ghosts and imagined memories,” and ghosts certainly make their presence felt throughout Shadow Songs. They appear most visibly in the opening lines of Phantom Apartment: There are ghosts / Sleeping in the ceiling of my room / And I know it’s you, I know it’s you. On this occasion, however, as the lyric implies Brooks is familiar with the spirits, which are benign and welcomed rather than feared and hostile. I can only presume the songwriter refers here to one of them as the visiting soul of her late father, who passed away in 2013, and to whom Shadow Songs is dedicated.
Such a life-changing event will inevitably move any artist to attempt to capture and express their feelings via their work, and so it was for Brooks, piling into the creation of Shadow Songs and taking almost two years to wrap it up. Brooks has stated that although she herself did not experience it, family members ‘encountered’ her father’s spirit for months following his death, so Shadow Songs appears in some ways to be Brooks’ way of exploring the huge emotions her family went through.
Considering the album’s central theme, there is little that is moribund about its music. Sonically speaking it is, as perhaps might be expected, hauntingly atmospheric. It is occasionally heavy on cavernous reverb, yet with just two mildly unsettling exceptions in the opener Intro (Hospital) and the dramatic Kerosene Dream, the melodies are pretty and bright.
The sound and structure of Shadow Songs owe its quality not only to Brooks’ excellent songwriting and performances, but also to a trio of skilled collaborators besides the aforementioned Goldman. Responsible for the effective atmospherics, producer Joe Lapinski also contributes pedal steel, bass and backing vocals; drummer Dave Clark of the legendary Etobicoke, ON outfit Rheostatics (and much more), chips in on three tracks – propelling the fabulous My Wolf/My Ghost along with shuffling brushed drums – and Sean Benton – as talented a painter as he is a musician – adds guitar to five cuts.
Brooks’ banjo and seemingly effortless, oft-otherworldly vocals are at the fore, providing comfort within the framework of some quite dreamy contemporary folk songs. Sounding like an amalgam of Laura Gibson and Shelley Short, Brooks’ voice is a soothing instrument that brings a buoyancy to what on paper should be subdued, melancholy material. The sprightly Olly Oxen Free, already an earworm for me, is a great example of this, with a melodic joy emanating from the sorrow that birthed this charming collection. The overall, greatly pleasing result, then, is more of a quiet, respectful celebration of a life well lived than a wallowing in the sadness brought about by its ending. Brittany Brooks’ father would be a very proud man as the recipient of such an intelligent and beautiful tribute.
Review by: David Morrison
Shadow Songs is out now, order it here via Bandcamp.
Photo Credit: Brittany Brooks