August 21st, 2017 | Album reviews

Treasures Untold

The history of American music is messy, and ugly. Many have claimed to be “kings,” “princes,” and “godfathers,” and yet in our own minds the heritage is a mess of tangled wire, a story whose facets become more complicated the more we parse them. American music a story of theft, of stolen credit, of half-remembered names, of feverish all-night exchanges gone undocumented. Its chief documents, particularly its earliest forms, come distorted and sheathed in static, a gritty chasm we cannot easily cross.

Tom Brosseau strolls across this ugly gulf singing with a voice soft as candle wax, plucking a gentle ragtime guitar. The performance on Treasures Untold, a document of a concert in Cologne, Germany, features his own songs and a handful of covers. The originals make great use of the tenderness in Brosseau’s delivery, odes to local Dairy Queens or the subtle spiritual joy of strumming the guitar. The album’s centerpiece, “The Horses Will Not Ride, the Gospel Won’t Be Spoken,” is a sepia snapshot of a little hillside church in Brosseau’s native North Dakota, and the fire that consumes it one Saturday night. Like much of Brosseau’s best material, the song ventures peacefully into darker emotional territory, but chooses not to dwell there. There are vivid details of the fire—the horses breaking out of their leather harnesses trying to escape and a white stepping stone, the only remnant of the church that remains the next day. Amidst the catastrophe, Brosseau gazes up at a few rays of sunlight breaking through the clouds.

Brosseau’s interpretations of American folk songs, of which there are six on Treasures, underscore his particular uncanniness. Rev. Gary Davis’ swaggering, billowing “I am the Light of the World” is light and crisp in his hands; Hank Williams’ “You Win Again” swoons rather than wallows. Brosseau’s interpretations of a pair by Jimmie Rodgers—the “Father of Country Music”—shore up the sweetness of Rodgers’ own delivery. The agility and richness of Brosseau’s voice renders the songs pretty in an otherworldly sort of way, dislodging them from time and tradition. Rodgers’ songs in particular, written nearly 100 years ago, sound as if they were written yesterday, or as if they were written in the bible, or came out of the air.

The collection, a warm, intimate document, calls to mind others who inverted or resewn the American myth—David Lynch imagined the 50s and its diners, jukeboxes, and convertibles as airtight containers of America’s soul; Jim Jarmusch imagined Elvis as a kind of holy American spirit. In Brosseau’s hands, American songs, for all their inherent grittiness, flutter and float, and some essential element is laid bare. We hear in Rodgers’ songs some traces of juke joint blues, or Cajun ballads, or corridos. The story of our music is complex, but for a moment, in Brosseau’s hands, we see a few of its strands, and the connections seem simple and graceful.

—Chris Kissel