FOR SOME YEARS, there has been no shortage of curiosity among the Cleveland music in crowd around “when will Brian Straw finish his record?” This asked in amused but respectful tones, a la Tom Waits’s query, what’s he building in there, anyway?
Baby Stars/Dead Languages is, then, a “long awaited” album, one Straw has spent a good portion of his life making, and his first proper release in 15 years. What took him so long?
Straw’s hiatus didn’t seem particularly weird, per se, given his measured approach. The pause that Straw takes before answering your question hints at this. He’d been working on this batch of songs for years, and for all we knew, a new record sat as far away in the future as the years we’d already waited. Unrushed, the record would simply take as long as it took.
But as it turns out, there was something else at work.
the blackouts weren't enough / to keep our blood from boiling
“I was drunk for a decade,” Straw readily admits. He started building a career in the early 2000s with touring in the U.S. and Europe, but this early momentum stalled due to the booze. “Life gets in the way,” he muses. Despite his spiraling appetite for alcohol, the Indiana-born songwriter managed to release three LPs, Once You're Lost You're Encouraged to Stay Lost (2000), Backfeed Pools (2001), and Bleeding Sun (2006), all now out of print.
Straw is aware of the curiosity around his recent lack of recorded output. “I feel like there should be some explanation for this huge lapse in time from when I was active,” Straw said.
This is not to say that he’s been out of sight, out of mind. Straw’s an artistic mainstay in Cleveland, operating the recording studio he built in a warehouse on the city’s west side, with a busy schedule of live-sound engineering gigs for diverse music scenes.
Mostly working solo on the stage, Straw is a spellbinding performer, commanding the room with simple, resonant strumming along with an accomplished finger-picking technique, his take on American primitive.
Those of us lucky enough to see him play over the years know several of these songs well. Noting a growing assuredness in his playing and singing, we were well prepared, and the new record is every bit as grand, detailed, and generous as we expected.
From its very opening, “Sleep Study” introduces Straw’s deft compositional abilities and ambitious scope, and a seriousness that avoids pretension. Amid technicolor visions of bloody sunsets and other spectacles of nature, Straw ruminates on an old love. It’s a lush and open hearted song that suggests redemption.
“I Have Not Wandered (Far From You)” brings to mind a church hymn, Straw’s powerful baritone and a steady pulse of gently overdriven, strummed electric guitar chords and gospel organ, grappling with his bad decisions, asking some “sweet sister” to help him stay true. Straw describes a life-changing moment of revelation, and knows he is making up for lost time.
don’t the moon look pretty baby / shining down on us
“Needle in the Creek” evokes Springsteen at his wild-hearted best, Straw’s hired-gun string players adding scrape and rumble to this portrait of young lovers waiting on a quiet street in the Midwest. In another standout, the explosive “Shame & Desire,” electric guitars face off and throw jabs as Straw grapples with an all-consuming guilt.
The near-nine-minute “Half-Buried Crow,” a fan favorite, closes the LP as it often does his live set. Stream-of-consciousness phrases fall over a repeated, entrancing guitar figure in waves, a flickering succession of amber-lit scenes. The injured bird in question, rescued and released back into the dangerous wild, is akin to the singer’s bruised heart, the song’s closing refrain “run away, run away” drifting upward like smoke as Straw backs away from the microphone, guitar strings fading into silence while the audience holds their collective breath.
Straw had his last drink in 2017 and resumed his live performances, further refining that handful of great songs and perfecting his recordings of them. Baby Stars/Dead Languages is his victory lap, the record we were waiting for, after all.
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