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Damien Jurado - Caught in the Trees

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Artist: Damien Jurado

Album: Caught in the Trees

Label: Secretly Canadian

Review date: Aug. 28, 2008

Over the course of eight full-lengths, singer-songwriter Damien Jurado has gained a reputation as a bard of unglamorous troubles – custody disputes and car accidents, lingering cancers and affairs in highway motels. A folk-singing adherent to the minimalism/Kmart-realism movement in literature, the Seattle-based singer’s been celebrated more for his tendency to write in a true third-person than for his gentle tenor and keen melodic ear. His twin roadmaps, in this assessment, are Nebraska and What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.

This characterization works well enough to describe many of the best of Jurado’s recordings, spanning 1999’s Rehearsals for Departure, 2003’s Where Shall You Take Me?, and 2006’s And Now That I’m In Your Shadow. At the same time, it doesn’t offer much of an avenue into Jurado’s newest effort, Caught In The Trees. Released by Secretly Canadian, the new record mostly sidesteps the bleak, Midwest gothic vibe of the aforementioned full-lengths. Lyrics slide away from the flesh-and-blood, concrete-and-plasterboard details that Jurado tends to utilize, and where so much of his music breathes life into vivid characters – kids dropping bikes in front of movie theatres (“Matinee”), killers juggling porn rags and bloody flashlights (“Amateur Night”) – Caught In The Trees is strikingly depopulated. For once, the cover art isn’t a candid Polaroid or a sepia-toned postcard but a satellite image of Earth. It appears, then, that this is a project with different priorities.

At the same time, it’s hard to pin down just what those priorities are. On the one hand, Jurado’s writing seems deliberately indirect. Woven into the warp of the instrumental arrangements, his lyrics are comparatively harder to make out, and their function has more to do with wisps of mood than sturdy frameworks of narrative (“You must remove the skin / and burn it all for fuel” in the Elliott Smith-sounding “Caskets”). The chorus of the jangly, radio-ready single “Gillian Was A Horse,” for example, is meant to sound like some character’s meaningful last stand (“I’m no lie detector / He’s no bullshit talker / and we both know who knows / what should be known to all the onlookers”), but the pronouns are so jumbled that the power’s all drawn from the punchy “bullshit” and some barroom piano trills.

In the past, Jurado has proven his skill at weaving unorthodox sounds – tape fragments, storms of feedback, robotic drum programming – into folk structures that seem loathe to accommodate them. But Caught In The Trees only goes so far in swapping narrative exactitude for instrumental texture. “Coats of Ice” injects twitchy fills of nervous, pencil-tapped percussion, “Last Rights” bobs in a symphonic current of cello and guitar, and “Best Dress” plods with a bass-heavy bombast reminiscent of Jurado’s rollicking 2002 detour, I Break Chairs. Still, the arrangements aren’t full enough to be sufficient on their own terms. There are taut, purring rockers (“Caskets”) and chugging, chiming anthems (“Go First”), but not the latitude shown in the past.

Coming after 2005’s disappointing On My Way To Absence, Jurado’s last record was something of a revelation. Around a nucleus of gently picked, unflaggingly downbeat melodies, Jurado and his bandmates added icy drum machines, high-in-the-mix harmonies, and thunderclouds of electric guitar, producing a gorgeous and underappreciated grower. Even with the same cast in tow – Jenna Conrad (Troubletown) and Eric Fisher – Jurado seems unable, or unwilling, to pull the same trick twice. Caught in the Trees is neither as ranging or as raw as what Jurado’s capable of. While that still slots it comfortably above most records of its ilk, in the context of this catalog, it’s essentially caught in the middle.

By Nathan Hogan

Other Reviews of Damien Jurado

I Break Chairs

Just In Time For Something

On My Way To Absence

Saint Bartlett


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View all articles by Nathan Hogan

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