3 1/2 stars (out of 4)
"Grass Punks" (Crossbill Records), from Los Angeles-via-North Dakota singer-songwriter Tom Brosseau, sounds at first like the perfect album for winter shut-ins: a quietly seductive combination of acoustic stringed instruments, serene melodies and pristine vocals.
But the songs are too prickly to be reduced to background music for a gray, melancholy afternoon. "Something has come between us, and, no, it ain't what you think," Brosseau announces on "Cradle Your Device," a darkly humorous lament about how products designed to bring people together actually defeat intimacy.
"How will it end, stuck on a roof again," he sings on another beautifully sung, anxiety-ridden tune. Anguish clouds the seeming optimism of "Today Is a Bright New Day"; no amount of sunshine is going to cure what consumes the narrator. And the closing declaration of "We Were Meant to Be Together" loses some of its sweetness because of the circumstance: The would-be lovers happen to be the Earth's sole surviving inhabitants. Talk about a deal with the devil: To get what you want, the world has to end.
Brosseau delivers these lines with a mixture of understatement and otherworldly wonder; his high, vaguely feminine tone holds some of the same DNA as Jimmie Dale Gilmore or Jeff Buckley, without sounding quite like either. Multi-instrumentalist Sean Watkins complements Brosseau's sure rhythm guitar with an encyclopedic array of punctuations, accents and counterpoint melodies. The home recording glistens: Fingers squeak against the strings, and the vocals come across with conversational clarity and warmth.
Brosseau has been writing and recording great songs for more than a decade. He's a regular on the Largo scene in Los Angeles, a scene that has fostered Aimee Mann, Sam Phillips, Jon Brion and Fiona Apple. For this singer, music isn't a profession so much as one of life's necessities, a need expressed in "I Love to Play Guitar." In the song, he mentions the search for "something greater," and it does not elude him on much of this firstname.lastname@example.org