opening for John Vanderslice, May 16, Daniel Street Club, 21 Daniel St., Milford, (203) 877-4446, danielstreetclub.com
Damien Jurado prizes conflicting qualities in his music. He aims for both a kind of spaciousness and a seemingly contradictory clutter. Jurado spoke to the Advocate last week, from the road on his tour dates opening for John Vanderslice. Jurado's record Saint Bartlett was one of the best of 2010. The sonic atmosphere weds a classic Wall of Sound/Brill Building effect with more off-the-cuff Tom Waits clang. But the songs have a narrative weight and a looming sadness, with death and estrangement hovering over some of the characters.
Jurado's songs sometimes sound like little short stories set to music. Take the devastatingly sad and beautiful “Rachel and Cali,” which chronicles, in a conversational back-and-forth, an exchange between what one guesses to be two friends about to head out to a party. One of them, Cali, seems frozen by anxiety. “Rachel, would it be all right if I stayed here in the car? There's too many people out there I don't know,” goes the opening line. With very little effort, Jurado, 38, captures that suffocating adolescent uncertainty, the desperate search for belonging.
One wonders how much of these characters are Jurado's first-person experience. Not much, is the answer.
“For the most part, 95 percent of my songs are fictitious,” says Jurado.
But he does conceive his material much the way a novelist would, with dialogue, towns, characters. Many of his tracks are named after places — “Arkansas,” “Kansas City” and “Wallingford” (a Seattle neighborhood) on Saint Bartlett.
“I just need a setting, a place to put the story,” he says. “I do not write short stories, but I do write short stories. The short stories are the song.”
Repeated listenings to the record reveal recurring, somewhat submerged themes: characters are stuck outside their homes, looking in, trying to find their way back, or a safe place to sleep; lights left on serve as both a sign of safety or welcome and as a visual reminder of being physically removed from the business of life.
The recordings are open and sparse, but there are loads of little details — a handclap, a mellotron part, half-hidden harmony vocals — which reward focused attention.
“I'm really into space,” says Jurado. “That's what jazz does, it's full of clutter, but at the same time it's full of lots of space. The clutter creates space. You're pushing more space to be created.”