I’ve long liked the work of Josh Brooks from Addison County. For his 2009 CD “Lessons Learned” I wrote, “Josh Brooks is close to breaking out of the Vermont singer-songwriter mold. ‘Lessons Learned’ could be the vehicle, but first Brooks needs to edit the tracks and repackage the album if he wants to achieve the recognition that is at his fingertips.”
In 2015 with the release of “Tall Tales” we rewarded his writing efforts saying, “If singer-songwriter Josh Brooks never issues another CD or writes another song, he can be happy knowing that his song ‘The Ballad of Heather Home Wrecker’ is one of the best story songs every written.” It won a Times Argus-Rutland Herald Tammie Award that year.
Brooks recently sent us a link to his newest album, “Catholic Blues,” available only by download or streaming. The medium of presentation aside, this is one of the best singer-songwriter albums of the year. Brooks has found whatever missing components of his songwriting, singing and guitar playing that were missing in his six previous albums. This one is a stunner.
This album gets high praise for its performance. On the nine tracks we have just acoustic guitar and voice. Two tracks also include some harmonica. This format works well only when the singer-guitarist plays well and the voice has strength, intensity and conviction. These Brooks has in spades.
“Catholic Blues” is a really good title for this album. Themes of religious conflict and redemption as well as issues relating to the Catholic Church’s recent battle with its long hidden problems of sexual abuse permeate the songs. Several song titles might have come out of liturgy.
Track one is “The Devil Taught My Mama How to Pray.” Track three, a stunner of a story, is “Sister Mary Janthony.” The title cut is track eight. In between we have “Pessimist Blues,” “Lucy’s Blues,” “Anniversary,” “Money,” “Helen of the Internet” and “For Pandora.”
Brooks is well read as well as a fine performer. The language is mature, poetic, poignant, insightful and revealing in ways perhaps only Catholics can understand. With only a guitar, the strength of this album shines through. When material is strong it needs little else to make it interesting. The simplicity of the production makes one listen to the lyrics, and each song tells a specific story. In essence this album is a series of short stories told through the eyes of a gifted storyteller.
All this music is delivered with a guitar sound that leans heavily on blues rhythms, chord progressions and format. Brooks’ voice is husky. As he writes in his explanation of the project: “‘Catholic Blues’ was recorded in the fall of 2016, after a year-long bout with vocal strain that forced me to stop singing and — in the process — reevaluate my priorities in general. When the voice finally came back, it wasn’t the one I had taken for granted before. It required me to lay back a little, explore nuances and pockets rather than outer limits. Singing differently meant I had to play guitar differently as well, and so I traded my trusty nylon pick for my own fingertips and spent some quality time getting to know my acoustic guitars better.”
As Brooks worked to integrate his voice and guitar playing, he went “back into my catalog, looking for old songs that fit in this new milieu. The ‘priorities in general’ part took a little longer to figure out, but ultimately it meant coming to terms with legacy, regrets, bad decisions, and the dark and persistent gravity of shadowy things. Through that time, I found comfort and wisdom in many places, but in particular Stephen Batchelor’s seminal book ‘Living with the Devil: A Meditation on Good and Evil,’ and Bow Thayer’s brilliant country blues album ‘The Source and the Servant.’”
Musicians more frequently than they’d admit grapple with injury, be it hands or voice. Guitarist Les Paul was a much better musician after his right elbow was fused in a guitar strumming position after a bad injury. Linda Thompson couldn’t sing for over a decade and Tony Rice kept his bluegrass career going by only playing guitar. What Brooks has done is create the best singer-guitarist he has ever been.
You can find the lyrics to Brooks’ songs on “Catholic Blues” at his Bandcamp.com web page. But the most stunning track, “Sister Mary Janthony,” a song he wrote 23 years ago while attending Saint Michael’s College, reveals his storytelling ability. He writes:
”Sister Mary Janthony had a pretty face
She’d hide it in her habit and call it her disgrace
All the ladies in the convent knew that she had been misplaced
They say she came from Iowa and amber waves of grain
With a face that sunk a thousand ships and hips that did the same
And the only thing she brought with her was a suitcase full of pain
Alleluia … Sister Mary’s found her place”
Many readers may not be familiar with streaming music. Brook’s album is available at https://joshbrooks.bandcamp.com/album/catholic-blues-2. You can listen to the album and read the lyrics before buying the music.
I urge you to both give this album a listen and to spend the money to reward this very talented musician for his latest excellent release.