Sunday, March 26, 2006

Luke Doucet's 'Broken (and Other Rogue States)'


My red-headed wife has a new CD that we've been listening to in her SUV -- Back to Bedlam, by the suddenly ubiquitous, Oprah-visiting James Blunt. He is Britain's latest version of David Gray, with a metallic voice over spare arrangements, singing about grief and loss. With his back against the wall, he is a strong poet, freakin' John Donne with a guee-tar; and so, as far as it goes, it is passably good stuff.

There's another new CD handsomely blaring through the tinny speakers of my little car -- Luke Doucet's Broken (and Other Rogue States). Like Blunt's effort, Broken is at least in part a break-up album, but there the resemblance ends. Whereas Blunt's album is a cold shower and bitter tears, Broken is cigarette smoke, drunken giggles, a wounded snarl, and a soak in a warm tub of gin-wash (the latter reflected, no doubt, in the album's cover art).

I've been amused at the aromatic notes that reviewers have found in Luke Doucet's album. One reviewer says that it is like "Echo and the Bunnymen playing Cracker both at home and away," while another says it has "a steady Beatles-flavored pop sensibility" while reeking like "metro-Atlanta." Well, OK, sure, yeah -- but what about the unmistakable influences of The Shins, Ron Sexsmith, Firefall and The Turtles, with earnest hints of near-twee?

While ambling down a lonely stretch of Route 30 in north-central Ohio, the album I'm listening to appears to be chock-full of heritage: structurally speaking, Doucet's first track, "Brother," shuffles down Walnut Street like an English madrigal with a hangover (apparently on its way to Tyburn Hill to see a hangin'); in "Emily, Please," Doucet seems to be channeling Joe Henry, then taking that and hand-cranking it through some kind of Sonoran ranchero contraption (laughing trompetas and all); and in "Keep Her Away From Me," Doucet has assumed the guise of the anonymous electric blues singer/guitarist I once encountered in a grimy back alley off Maxwell Street in Chicago one Sunday morning in the winter of 1987, shouting through a fuzzy amp and speaker. Doucet must'a been there, but I no see him.

It may sound like a mish-mash, but Doucet has a steady hand and a sure purpose, and these are the mechanisms through which Doucet's distinctive voice emerges. There's no question that Doucet's main character's break-up was a painful one, and that he was in love -- but Doucet's approach to dealing with it is profoundly multi-dimensional. We have, in "One Too Many," his realization of the inexorable poisonous-ness of a relationship-in-progress, revealed in the lines

It takes a uniquely f*cked up man
To break his own heart
& the right girl at the wrong time
To make him do it
So if I'm the guy & you're the girl
& the time is now
Then I'm as broke as any man could be


We have a reenactment of the drunken moment he's been thrown out by his girl in "Emily Please," complete with a vérité prologue tracklet, "Stumbling Gingerly Back to Emily's Apartment," which hides none of the central character's foibles and weaknesses. So, too, we have his inability to get into gear to turn his life around, swapping half-hearted apologies and self-loathing for false bravado and bitter recriminations in the gleeful "It's Not the Liquor I Miss," the bright "Broken One," "Wallow," and the stately "No Love to Be Made Here Now." In "It's Not the Liquor I Miss," in fact, I think we find (in addition to a gutsy use of sax peppered over a faux disco string section) the crux of the whole album, located specifically within the chorus girls' chanting of the words "Little red wagon's got a new jet engine/ Little red wagon's got a broken wheel" -- a metaphor for a psyche that is all at once seething with heat and passion, but is nonetheless stuck in a state of suspended animation. That's what breaking up (not to mention sobering up) can do to you, by gosh.

It's a tuneful and intelligent dish -- but, please, don't let those epithets turn you off. It's also a lot of fun.

DISCLAIMER: This little note was probably written while under the pernicious influence of Extra-Strength Excedrin and a cup of Joe.

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