The amazing thing about people (and musicians are, despite the rumors, also people) is that we are rarely static entities. Time and age have a funny way of sculpting our tastes and experiences, to the point that we may not even recognize ourselves in a decade or so. Brett Detar’s debut solo album Bird in the Tangle is a sonic testament to this truth. After turns as a guitarist in metalcore pioneers Zao and as lead vocalist for the indie/alternative quintet The Juliana Theory, Brett, by his own admission, became burnt out on rock as a genre, complete with its endless fixations on guitar effects and tone and post-production. Instead, Detar found himself drawn to the roots-infused music of Johnny Cash, Townes Van Zandt, and Gram Parsons — singer song-writers who thrived on their pared down deliveries. And so, almost five years after the end of The Juliana Theory, Brett returned to the music scene with his debut solo album, a mix of country, folk, bluegrass, and countless other genres birthed by down to earth with some stringed instruments and a story to tell.
You’d hardly know that Brett only discovered this genre eight or so years ago as he breaks into the wistful opening ballad “Empty House on a Famous Hill”, a eulogy to his old home in Los Angeles and a clear entry in the long line of cautionary tales of the lure of fame (as he warns, “If they don’t love you now, they never will”). The delivery is earnest and the instrumentation is fittingly subdued (just finger picked guitar and swelling pedal steel). Brett’s got an ear for vocal melody, and “Empty House” sets the tone for the record to follow.
However, the album wisely throws a curveball with the follow up track, “The Devil’s Gotta Earn,” a dark, banjo driven jam straight out of the back hollers of Appalachia that brings to mind a little bit of Modest Mouse’s edge. Too often, Americana albums can fall into a samey ballad style, so the mix-up here does wonders towards keeping the album fresh. It helps that it’s gotta a hand clapping, toe-tapping groove and an infectious call and response breakdown. Brett revists the bluegrass vibe later in the album with “Cocaine, Whiskey, and Heroin”, another toe-tapper though a bit more straight forward in its delivery. Here too though the stylistic change-up really helps balance out the slower ballads. Plus, the repeated chorus “I got them cocaine, whiskey, and heroin blues” is just so much fun to sing.
Rounding out the album are a trio of tracks with clear roots in the outlaw western style (think The Highwaymen or Bad Blake from Crazy Heart). “Road to Ruin Woman” brings back the banjo front and center and mixes a catchy hum-along chorus with an oddly dissonant, rock-infused verse structure and the classic country trope of the femme fatale (though I don’t think that’s the proper country term). “We’re Broken but We’ll Never Be Alone” sticks closer to the classic Texas roadhouse style, with some nice honkytonk keys and some bluesy harmonica jumping in. As with almost every track on the album, Brett and his collection of talented studio musicians sound like their having a grand old time with these songs, jumping in and out of solos and keeping things fast and loose. “Coasts”, the final of the outlaw trio and one of my favorites from the album, sounds straight out of a Highwayman album, with twangy guitar, banjo, pedal steel, and fiddle dancing back and forth behind Brett’s vocals. The highlight here is the call and response between Brett and the backing females, with it’s heart-felt, “Well it just ain’t right/We should be side by side.”
Overall, however, the album is dominated by the traditional country ballad, and while these tracks don’t always stand out like the more uptempo ones, Brett still has an uncanny ear for melody and heartfelt lyrics. “A Miner’s Prayer” presents the letters of a coal miner far from home, wishing to be home with his family but forced to provide for them. It’s an age-old tale and one that could run the risk of seeming cliche, but Brett is able to come across as earnest, even if the track didn’t quite stick with me as much as others. “It’s Only the Night”, the longest track of the album, uses the echoing pedal steel to wonderful effect, providing a haunting counterpoint to Brett’s vocal delivery, and the track boats one of the more effective choruses. It ends with a two minute outro, which certainly could come across as excessive, but I got caught up enough in the lilting pedal steel that I didn’t quite feel myself growing tired. “Caged Bird” and “This World Ain’t Got Nothing” are both stripped down singer-songwriter ballads, especially “Caged Bird” which features just Brett and his guitar. As with the rest of the CD, the performances are heart-felt and impassioned, though “Nothing” is an odd choice for an album closer, backed by an ominous cello and fading on a single, floating swell of fiddle without much closure.
The highlight of the album, however, is undoubtedly “This City Dies Tonight”, a duet between Brett and his wife that sounds like a B-side to a Johnny Cash/June Carter single. Sporting a bouncing gospel swing, a beautiful blend between the two voices, and perhaps the best line of the album (“My story’s been written, but it ain’t written well”), this is a reminder of what country music was and always should be: a genre focused on melody, lyrics, and earnestness, unadorned by auto-tune and more digital filters than you can throw a Big N Rich CD at.
His journey from alternative to Americana may seem a strange one, but Bird in the Tangle clearly comes from only the sincerest of places. This is a love letter written by a musician enthralled with the classic roots music of the 60’s and 70’s, and a fine throwback to those glory days as well. Brett’s offering the album for free on his website, and at that price, anyone who has ever enjoyed the folk, bluegrass, or country genres should go check it out. Even if you’re new to the genre (hell, even if you hate it), you might just find yourself walking away with the slightest more respect for the style.
Overall Grade: A-