Rachel Brooke,
A Killer's Dream
(MAL, 2012)

One struggles to resist the adjective that comes irritatingly to mind upon initial exposure to Rachel Brooke. That adjective, alas, is "quirky," which can all too easily reduce to "cutely odd," no particular achievement. The cover photograph does look vaguely humorous, showing an attractive, guitar-wielding young woman whose clothing and hair style would not have been out of place on any street or stage in either the 1920s or the 1950s. And that can also lead to a false impression; it may encourage the expectation that Brooke is reproducing a sound one might have heard at the early Grand Ole Opry.

Though something like old country music is a presence on A Killer's Dream, it is more than matched by the sorts of scratchy guitars and shuffle beats that have far more to do with Howlin' Wolf than with Hank Williams and Kitty Wells. If "Old Faded Memory" -- like everything here, a Brooke original -- has the sentimentality of a Lulu Belle & Scotty number (underscoring the connection, it's a duet with Lonesome Wyatt, of Those Poor Bastards fame), most are rough-and-tumble, bluesy tales of struggle, conflict and sex. In one sense the music, based as it is in august genres, is comfortable and recognizable. In another, while not taking anything into experimental territory, Brooke yet manages to make it all seem fresh.

My favorite cut -- and they're all good -- is "Serpentine Blues," clearly inspired by a host of, well, serpentine blues with titles such as "Black Snake Moan" (Blind Lemon Jefferson) and"Crawling King Snake" (John Lee Hooker). "Moan" and "King" are top-of-the-shelf genre standards, best let be by wise performers; yet Brooke's take on that tradition is a joy, an exercise in command of material that is at once assured and delirious. It should be added that in the blues, snakes are not snakes but something else and something specifically male. Happily, Brooke does not let that stop her. She manages to incorporate the image into a comically Gothic -- and propulsive slide guitar-driven -- narrative with a nod to Robert Johnson's "Me & the Devil Blues."

Judging from what I see on her website, Brooke is getting a lot of work on lots of roots stages around the country. I suspect she's even better live than she is on record, which is saying something. No ordinary talent, Brooke deserves a wide listenership.

music review by
Jerome Clark

9 March 2013

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