By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
Equal parts Sherlock Holmes, Sigmund Freud, and Steve Forbert, Damien Jurado conjures whole histories from small details. The Seattle-based singer-songwriter's economy with words is uncanny: He requires only eight ("a suitcase, ten dollars, and a sad expression") to catalog a woman's worldly possessions and communicate her despair in the title track to his 1999 album
Rehearsals for Departure. Glib descriptors like "urban folk singer" have always fit the stocky Jurado about as well as a bikini, but his gifts as a chronicler of the human condition are as much inherited from the folk tradition as they are innate.
Yet his skills haven't always been so strong. One year before Elliott Smith donned a white polyester suit to strum "Miss Misery" to millions of Oscar watchers, leaving the Northwest's indie world in his wake, Jurado had signed to Sub Pop and released Waters Ave. S. On this debut album, Jurado strums and sings, often off-key, about guys longing for girls or for God. The few strong characters here aren't easy to identify with (one is a purple anteater), but the theremin-addled pop paean "Space Age Mom" suggests Jurado's lyrical strength: "Tofu hot dogs, meditation, reading books by Carl Sagan/No doubt about it, you're one of a kind."
Jurado's study of folk balladry--a centuries-deep wellspring of character-driven songs--has informed and improved his own writing. On Waters Ave S., "Treasures of Gold" draws its phrasings and theme (a soldier leaves his family for the front) from that tradition, but to call it pale imitation would be generous. (Jurado has since covered a handful of old songs, including "East Virginia" and "Rosewood Casket.")
Yet the simple stories and spare arrangements of these folk ballads are transformed on Rehearsals for Departure, a disc so quiet you can hear chirping birds and even Jurado's breath. The subject matter here comes from a different kind of archive: The discarded tapes Jurado collects at estate sales and junk shops. A relentless roll call of breakups and regret, Rehearsals contains Jurado's found footage: the sampled voice of "Robert," whose taped letters to a distant lover Jurado extrapolates to yield the songs "Eyes for Windows" and "Letters & Drawings."
Robert and his lover, Angel, are excerpted at length on Postcards and Audio Letters, an hourlong compilation of conversations and correspondence culled from Jurado's tape collection. Postcards casts the listener as eavesdropper, prying into domestic scenes that are alternately harrowing (a raging father argues with his ex-wife while their son cries in the background), heartwarming ("Hi, Dawn, this is Phil. I thought I'd leave a message to tell you how much I care about you"), and comical (Daughter: "This is a ghetto blaster, Dad." Father: "No, it's a cassette recorder").
Yet it is on Ghost of David (Sub Pop), Jurado's latest full release, that Jurado finally combines his disparate influences to yield something new. While deploying a broader array of instrumentation and a newfound taste for ambient sound, Jurado preserves the intimacy of Rehearsals. And while these songs are still dominated by characters and events rather than emotions, Jurado frequently uses them to confront the painful struggle between shaky confidence and consuming fear. It's a tangled, personal, and affecting album, and in anticipation of his upcoming release, due next February, it's a hopeful harbinger of even greater stories to be told.