The blue glow of a smartphone lights "Cradle Your Device," the first song on singer Tom Brosseau's new album, "Grass Punks." A compact, personal protest featuring acoustic guitar, accompaniment by producer and Nickel Creek co-founder Sean Watkins and Brosseau's gentle tenor, the song captures an intimate 21st century moment in bed with a preoccupied lover — and her device.
With wit, honesty and dueling acoustic guitars propelling it, the North Dakota-born, Los Angeles-based Brosseau details the problem: "Something has come between us, and no, it ain't what you think," he sings, ruling out infidelity. Rather, a cuckolding handheld computer is responsible: "You're stuck inside a bidding war/You're arguing over price/You hardly even acknowledge my existence/When you cradle your device."
Best known as a collaborator in a vocal trio with actor-singer John C. Reilly and Becky Stark (the Living Sisters, Lavender Diamond), this is Brosseau's first solo album in five years. "Grass Punks" offers nine lovely, slightly askew acoustic songs about first kisses, people trapped on icy roofs, a rural North Dakota Dairy Queen, "tokens I won at the fair," fate, the bliss of getting lost in music and sexual frustration.
"It's amazing how long these things take," Brosseau says after lunch at Guisado's tacos in Boyle Heights, laughing about how long it took between albums. "It's not that I have a hard time coming up with lyrics or melodies. It's just this very special and sacred thing to me to be able to have my ears pricked by something that somebody says in humanity. And then for me to sit down and contemplate that takes a long time."
The care is evident within the small-screen indifference of "Cradle," an ear-pricking gem in which, after protesting divided attention, the narrator tries the rational approach. "I mean, I'm wearing next to nothing/I even put on a little spice/I long for you to hold me in your arms/But instead you cradle your device."
"Grass Punks" was recorded in old Los Angeles at Watkins' house overlooking the Hollywood Freeway. The two met through the tight creative community surrounding Largo, the West Hollywood music and comedy venue whose tight roster of performers includes artists as varied as Fiona Apple, Patton Oswalt, Jon Brion, Sara Watkins and Sarah Silverman.
Known for an intimate atmosphere that rewards impromptu collaboration, Largo's long been a hub, part of a Los Angeles music songwriting scene that Brosseau gradually eased into, with the help of songwriters Cindy Wasserman and John Doe (who co-produced Brosseau's "Grand Forks" album), after living and working in Nashville and San Diego.
"Once I started visiting some of these places with another person, I wasn't so lonely, it wasn't so big, and I began to see the community in this town," he says. At Largo, "a lot of times I wouldn't even play. I'd just watch people." He released "Late Night at Largo," recorded after hours at the club, in 2004.
The product of those observations was "Posthumous Success," Brosseau's last solo album, released in 2009 by British label Fatcat, which at the time specialized in a strange combination of electronic and folk music. The carefully crafted, if humble, album featured Brosseau's snapshot songs often matched with a rock band. The best, "You Don't Know My Friends," is as magnetic a rock song about obsession as you'll hear.
That and earlier records further afforded him opportunity onstage. One evening when performing in Los Feliz as Les Shelleys with fellow singer Angela Correa, Brosseau recognized one of the club's regulars during a rendition of Bob Dylan's "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll."
Brosseau recalls that odd Hollywood feeling of "looking out into the audience and thinking that was John C. Reilly looking back at me." The two met afterward.
"When I heard Tom's voice — and I think many people have this reaction — it's was just this otherworldly sound," Reilly says. "There's very few singers, male singers especially, that sound anything like Tom. And I was really into close-harmony music, listening to the Everly Brothers, and the Louvin Brothers, and the Stanley Brothers — all the brothers down the ages."
Reilly had resigned himself that he'd never find someone with whom to harmonize. Then he heard Brosseau. "My mouth fell open, and I just sat there. I couldn't believe what I was hearing. It had this amazingly soulful quality, and just this pure, high voice. I find it very rare."
They kept in touch, and eventually he, Brosseau and Stark started singing old country and western songs in harmony. They now tour as John C. Reilly & Friends, and have gigged Australia, America and Britain, with plans to hit the road together again later this year.
"The truth is," Reilly says, "when people scratch their heads and say, 'Why is John C. Reilly doing a roots music revue band? Why's he doing that?' We all do it because we love the music and want to keep it alive in a live-performance way. But my secret is, I'm famous enough. I want people to know who Tom Brosseau is and who Becky Stark is."
"It's a great honor to get to sing with Tom and John, because it really feels like we're doing this work together," Stark says. "We're sharing this work that has a very simple but clear principle. We want to share this harmony in a way that's appealing and uplifting."
The songs on "Grass Punks" aren't uplifting in the usual sense. They speak openly about loneliness, reminisce about moments of love and heartbreak and approach memories with poetic but unsentimental flourishes. The best of them, "Today Is a Brand New Day," "Stuck on the Roof Again" and "Gregory Page of San Diego," offer a depth compounded by Brosseau's pitch-perfect voice and the slight echo of Watkins' bedroom, where with a single microphone the album was recorded in two days.
"It seemed to have a presence to it. All hardwood floor. It was easy to sit down and record," explains Brosseau of the process. "I would bring him the bones of the song on my acoustic guitar and he would add to it with his."
The result is two instrumental experts surrounded by stark silence. On "Stuck on the Roof Again," the two trade lines while Brosseau relays the plight of a person who, while clearing the snow in bitter cold, gets stranded and is faced with the potential of jumping to her death. "Love High John the Conqueror Root" is a coping song about a recent breakup. "Gregory Page of San Diego" is named in honor of a fellow songwriter who helped Brosseau adjust to a new home.
A simple, life-affirming song, the latter work contains lines that have lingered since the first time I heard them and as perfect (and funny) a verse about the joy of creativity as you'll hear. Partly set at a flea market where the narrator has just left "with a heavy metal bullhorn and a burn from the sun," Brosseau sings with the pure conviction of a man open to fate's possibilities: "I'm calling out to the universe from Adams Avenue/Saying 'If you want me, I'll be right here waiting for you.'" As guitars tangle out a final melody, he repeats the line as reinforcement.
"We could have added all of these different sounding textures, and it probably would have been great. Maybe — who knows? — really commercial," Brosseau says. "But the thing with Sean and me was that the guitars just seemed to be enough. I don't think we wanted anything to get in the way of that."