Down but not out: Weilers sorrowful songs still find room for beauty in the world

Down but not out: Weilers sorrowful songs still find room for beauty in the world

Brenda Weiler
End the Rain

Speaker Phone Records

End the Rain began with a tragedy. The sister of Portland-by-way-of-Minneapolis folk sweetheart Brenda Weiler committed suicide in 2005. Weiler's new album is a chronicle of the songs she wrote during her healing process from that ghastly loss. Yes, it's an undeniably grim premise for a record. Yet End the Rain isn't a bummer. It's quiet and powerful, sometimes relentlessly so, but Weiler's voice is incurably, delightfully hopeful and girlish.

She starts in a soprano whisper. With barely enough force to blow out a candle, the words leak through her lips: "Do you see me here all alone?"

The production is restrained. The whole universe of this disc, which was recorded here in Minneapolis by Darren Jackson (Kid Dakota), consists of no more than Weiler's acoustic guitar and her voice. But that voice truly fills the entire space. A drumbeat would have felt intrusive; backing vocals would have been a needless distraction. Through singing, Weiler works through the loss and emptiness in her life, and this process is at perfect pitch when presented without accompaniment. It's as if she's written the ideal soundtrack to watching a patch of sunlight move across the floor over the course of a long, lonely day. She's isolated and withdrawn, but hasn't forgotten beauty's place in the world.

Elliott Smith, another folk-influenced songwriter from Portland, set the benchmark for this type of intimate acoustic music. Smith was a beautiful downer. His voice was nothing special, but he drew incredible characters, and his songwriting was gloriously affecting. Weiler isn't trying to compete with him as a storyteller, and Smith's musicianship (he was once nominated for an Academy Award for a song in Good Will Hunting) is in a completely different league. But End the Rain is like a cousin to Smith's barest—and to my thinking, finest—albums, 1994's Roman Candle and 1995's Elliott Smith. The two artists have a similar talent for expressing lovely, fatigued sorrow. Perhaps it comes from a like place in both of them; Smith himself committed suicide in 2003.

The popular understanding of personal response to tragedy holds that there are five stages of grief. (At least three of these stages are presented during any given open-mic night at your local coffeehouse.) Four—denial, anger, bargaining, and acceptance—aren't represented on End the Rain. We're dealing here mostly with depression, with a woman who can't summon up much enthusiasm to face this new world in which loved ones annihilate themselves.

Sometimes the numbing sameness of one gray day after another creeps in. The chords that Weiler strikes for rhythm, for harmony, for company, are simple and forgettable. There's not much opportunity for comic relief in 11 tracks of dead-sister grieving. Apparently Weiler meant for the album to reach stage five, acceptance, and end on a note of peacefulness. But by February of 2007, when she headed into the studio, acceptance still hadn't shown up. Surveys of the horizon didn't look too promising, either, so the sessions wrapped without it.

"I can't find the will," Weiler sings prettily on the disc's best cut, "The Will." It's the eighth song on the album, which makes sense, given Weiler's liner-notes assertion that the songs are presented in the order they were written as she healed. It shows some moments of grace and relaxation returning to her life. The strums coming from her acoustic have a bit of springy optimism, as if the bounce returning to her step is also coming through her guitar pick. It's invigorating, and if you didn't know the history behind the song, you wouldn't be able to appreciate the relief Weiler probably felt when she realized she could write like this again.

Brenda Weiler performs a CD-release party on Saturday, September 14, at the 400 Bar; 612.332.2903