It is always a bit intimidating to be asked to write on a favorite artist, to try to bring to light to brilliance of an artist who seems to escape definition, who balances on the edge of heartbreak and hope so precariously, who is able to pen songs that seem to sprout legs and create a life all their own. But when asked to write on the criminally underrated Doug Burr, I had to hide my gleeful enthusiasm to bring such an unique talent to light.
The more I listen to Doug Burr, the more everything else around his music seems to fade to black. His songs give the sense of being tethered to this world, of having something substantial tying you down to the world spinning madly around you, of somehow bringing peace in a moment where the storm is brewing right outside your window. Simply put, his music is such that it demands your attention. It requires you to switch the shuffle button to the off position and be completely immersed in the narratives that his songs bring to life so eloquently.
I have thought a lot about the dichotomy of hope and despair and of joy and sorrow lately, in many ways spurred on by Damien Jurado’s heartbreakingly gorgeous Maraqopa, and in most ways influenced by my own personal quest to more fully understand my relationship to the world. Burr’s music straddles that line as well, allowing just enough darkness to creep in before the light answers back, offering a glimmer of hope in the midst of the unknown. I can’t help but shake the feeling that Burr isn’t just concerned about telling the stories in his songs, but that he’s also asking the listener to start asking themselves the key questions that help make sense of their own stories. Just try listening to his Trembling Lips and Pale Fingertips 7″ (released today on vinyl and as a 4-song download card via Velvet Blue Music/Spune), and not be affected. Both of these songs have the capacity to chill you to your core, but provide just enough warmth to keep you coming back for more.
The first track, an alternate version of “A Black Wave is Comin’”, the lead track from his critically-acclaimed 2010 release O Ye Devastator, sounds like a song Burr would sing if he was told he only had one song left to sing again. It is immediate, and it feels like Burr himself is sitting in the same room with you from the first few notes of the piano. The “black wave” that is comin’ in the song nearly swallows the listener whole with just Burr’s voice and the piano to provide comfort. Throughout it all, his voice disguises the bleakness of the lyrics with a reassuring, even optimistic, tone. By the time the guitar enters in halfway through the song, you’re left with the feeling that come what way, it will all turn out all right in the end. The black wave may be coming, but we will not be overcome as somewhat alluded to in his last repeated refrain of “I can’t sing, but I hear a little hymn“. Everything about this version of the song feels intimate, like Burr is telling the listener, “come in close, I am about to bear my soul to you.” It is gorgeous, and it gets better with each repeated listen.
The B-side of the 7″, “Chief of Police in Chicago”, resonates in much the same way as the first, with the piano being much more prevalent in the alternate version than the original, and its sparseness pushes Burr’s voice and lyrics to the forefront. It tells the story of a police officer in Chicago, speaking apparently to the mother of a young murderer. The instrumentation on this version balances out the dark, bleak future that is pervasive throughout the lyrics (“Oh I have seen the thing you cannot see/And my team and I are just a little shaken/We’ve discovered the gene“). The listener has to use his or her own imagination to figure out exactly what has left the team distraught about the future, but you get the sense that the chief of police is not shying away from combatting the impending darkness.
Everything about the “Trembling Lips and Pale Fingertips 7″” is worth listening to over and over again, and these new, stripped-down versions, for me, are full of wide-eyed wonder and hope despite their gloom. I highly recommend buying or downloading the 7″, and for anyone who is just hearing about Doug Burr for the first time, I would encourage you to buy the rest of Burr’s music immediately. The purchase will be worth every penny.