I first heard Jon Brooks at a folk festival; Edmonton? Calgary? Somewhere else? Details fade, but not impressions: I wanted to hear more. And, I did.
I write about music. Not terribly well, certainly not effortlessly or eloquently, but I write. I used to do it as hobby, supplementing my spending money with freelance dollars that fell into my lap. Now I write about music as compulsion, even when the endeavour costs me money. I write this not to whine about my diminished circumstances now that freelance remuneration is usually little more than a digital download, frequently offered begrudgingly.
No, I mention it because I tend to listen to a lot of music during the course of a year. Since new music is constantly coming my direction (again, not a complaint), even favourite albums that I recall with considerable fondness are seldom revisited: they sit in the drawers, stand on the shelves, and are piled in the bins, awaiting rediscovery in retirement and dotage. What I’m saying is, there is a lot of music scattered around in this wee brain, and I am no longer able to keep track of all of it.
All of which I’ve told you to tell you this: my second or third time through Jon Brooks’ Moth Nor Rust II, I had an epiphany: the album sounded familiar, which felt strange. Other than when a new album from Brooks makes its way to me, I don’t listen to him: again, nothing personal—I just don’t have time; too many new albums (and this summer, too many albums from The Monkees, Rush, Dolly Parton, Brandi Carlile, Split Enz, Cindy Lee Berryhill, Steve Goodman, Kimberley Rew, and Harry Nilsson albums) to consider.
As much as I enjoy Jon Brooks’ music while I am listening, I don’t know his music and recordings the way I do John Wort Hannam’s, Maria Dunn’s, Rachel Sweet’s or Jim Lauderdale’s. Yet, this new one resonated, initiating a conversation with me that appeared to be joined mid-thought.
Four or five listens later—late night, mid-work day, morning drive—I actually examined the one-sheet his label had thoughtfully enclosed with the disc. And for the first time, the title Moth Nor Rust II registered. Why II?
And I then understood why the name Jeremy Hinzman (the protagonist of “War Resister”) was familiar, why I was so attuned to Jamie, a self-professed “pretty good guy” just trying to get by (“Small,”) and why I was able to sing along “If it’s not love we can’t take it when we go” (“When We Go”) first time through. Why, even the artwork of the package connected.
Moth Nor Rust was released a decade ago, and was the first Jon Brooks album I heard. Moth Nor Rust II is a contemporary re-imaging of Brooks’ most enduring release. Listening to the 2009 album this week, I am reminded how spellbinding I found the album those years ago. Not only does Brooks not sing like anyone else, I don’t believe he views the world like the rest of us. And for a songwriter, that is a necessary if isolating aspect of the artistry.
As I’ve stated, I don’t listen to Jon Brooks often—haven’t likely heard Moth Nor Rust since I was writing in support of The Smiling and Beautiful Country Side within the Polaris Music Prize message board:
Much has been made of this recording with some calling it overly complex and too dark a-listen, but I find the characters and situations Brooks invents to explore to be reflective of the conflicted types who inhabit our world- few of us are all good, few of us are all bad: we tend to behave situationally within the context that we have chosen to live. It is a real strong folk-art album filled with thoughts and folks we mostly don’t want to know but possibly do- we just may not be aware of it. Sometimes it even rhymes.
Whenever I do listen, Jon Brooks is re-established as a personal favourite, at least for a few days. By not listening more intently, more regularly I’ve done both he and me a disservice. The words I wrote about that 2014 release hold true for Moth Nor Rust II. We remain conflicted, maybe more so than at anytime during our lifetimes; I certainly feel that was: confused, anxious, troubled, and weary.
The search for human connection remains true, the essential element of society and their coalmine canary, the folk songwriter. Last year’s No One Travels Alone was a return to the darker side for Brooks—plaintive, gnarled blues as folk music—grimmer even than The Smiling and Beautiful Country Side, a collection of modern murder ballads.
Where the original Moth Nor Rust album was acoustic, intimate, and even a bit jarring with its intensity, the new incarnation has a collaborative, community foundation, every bit as forebodingly hopeful as the first but also different enough to demonstrate added value.
What I most appreciate about an album of this type is witnessing the development of the artist: the songs remain, the lyrics fairly constant. What does mature over time is the singer, the performer. Here we witness Brook’s continued reign within the folk-outsider troubadour genus; my back pages, perhaps, but as good as he ever was, he is better now.
The arguably overly earnest “God Pt. IV” (‘shrill’ and ‘unhelpful’ are adjectives used by Brooks to justify its removal) has been replaced by “High Five,” a more promising production featuring what I initially thought was sweet, rich cello, but turns out to be John Showman’s fiddle. Brooks paints a picture: a jog, a stranger’s acknowledgement, celestial enlightenment.
Brooks has reordered the songs, changed the instrumentation considerably. Musically, Moth Nor Rust II is a denser album, the arrangements naturally fuller, more robust. The Outskirts of Approval (Showman, Neil Cruickshank—bass, guitars, organ, vocals, co-producer, Jason LaPrade—programming, co-producer, Vivienne Wilder—bass and vocals, Christina Hutt—vocals) create the allied community deeply personal albums demand; without it, the connection between artist and audience is diminished.
Gently infused into “When We Go” is the voice of LaPrade’s late spouse Rosemary Phelan; this contribution lends additional significance to an already weighty song. A reprise of this number serves as the album’s closing benediction. Our divided society—no matter where we live, we seem alienated from each other—is, examined anew within a revised “What’s Within Us,” but its essential truth remains: we cannot allow ourselves to remain enslaved due to circumstance.
Given a decade’s perspective, Brooks and his co-producers are allowed opportunity to make alterations and improvements to what was already an incredibly strong collection of songs. “Safer Days” is provided an entirely different mood from the original with Chrickshank’s bass and guitar and the addition of Ed Hanley’s tablas and Brooks’ app iTanpura. Conversely, the album’s only solo performance is “War Resister,” and the decision to have Brooks carry the song in its entirety is another sage choice: among Brooks’ most intense compositions, the song benefits from unadorned interpretation.
I’ve written some 1150 words, some of them even about Jon Brooks’ Moth Nor Rust II. I’m not confident I’ve done the album justice. If the shadowed side of folk appeals, be confident that you will appreciate the recording. I have.
Review based on supplied CD.