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Damien Jurado

A spiritual punk rather than an urban folk troubadour, Californian singer/songwriter (born November 12, 1972) has been a slow-burner on the indie scene over the past two decades or so, but many of his heartfelt songs have been everlasting and indeed stalwart; he’d moved to Seattle, Washington at the age of thirteen.
Kicking off his rootsy career via small-time outfits like the Christian-tinted Coolidge, Cupcakes, Flowermouth, Moonboy and Lo-Life, JURADO gradually acquired a local following, largely due to the exposure in the mid-90s of some self-released cassettes, namely `Leaded’, `Trailer Park Radio’ and `Gasoline’. This work was brought to the attention of the Sub Pop team (by fan Jeremy Enigk, the frontman with SUNNY DAY REAL ESTATE), and having signed on the dotted line he released two singles, `Trampoline’ and `Motorbike’; his inaugural album WATERS AVE S. {*6} arrived in early 1997. A selection of thirteen tracks to showcase his skill for crooner-folk storytelling, these were mostly fictional tales and affecting personal struggles; his parents had went through a recent divorce.
If further confirmation of his talent as a singer/songwriter was required, then 1999’s REHEARSALS FOR DEPARTURE {*8} provided it. Lyrical, plaintive and intimate, the record painted an often bleak portrait of urban middle-class America. With instrumentation provided by friends, there was also a diversity of styles and sounds – with the honky-tonk `Honey Baby’ and the dreamy `Saturday’. JURADO’s post-millennium follow-up POSTCARDS AND AUDIO LETTERS {*5} was an odd and audacious collection of old recordings from second-hand boom boxes and answering machines – without any music.
Returning to more conventional urban-folk with GHOST OF DAVID (also 2000) {*7}, he was now drawing comparisons with artists like TOM WAITS and NICK DRAKE, with its reflective brooding courtesy of `Tonight I Will Retire’, `Medication’ and `Ghost In The Snow’; the traditional `Rosewood Casket’ was just as earnest and morbidly sweet.
Forsaking his pacemaker-friendly folk for an electrific sound by way of backing band – named after an earlier EP – Gathered In Song (aka Eric Fisher, Andrew Myers and Josh Golden), JURADO showed he could rock with the best of them on I BREAK CHAIRS (2002) {*7} – think PIXIES or HUSKER DU.
Back on dry-desert land, so to speak, he switched labels (and styles once again) when he inked a deal on Secretly Canadian, releasing WHERE SHALL YOU TAKE ME? (2003) {*7}, a moody, minimalist lo-fi-folk affair highlighting newbie gems `Abilene’, `Intoxicated Hands’ and the GORDON LIGHTFOOT-esque alt-country rocker `Texas To Ohio’.
2005’s ON MY WAY TO ABSENCE {*7} was another detached and delicate introspection of his world in another melancholy paradigm, and a sad-core paean to the green-eyed monster (example `A Jealous Heart Is A Heavy Heart’); others worth a spin were:- `White Center’, `Fuel’, `Sucker’ and the exquisitely raw `I Am The Mountain’. Moving on to AND NOW THAT I’M IN YOUR SHADOW (2006) {*7} – his seventh in all – the skeletal `Denton, TX’, `What Were The Chances’ (a duet with Jenna Conrad), `I Am Still Here’ et al, distilled a shady alt-country stroll through a forest of confessional storytelling.
Also augmented by backers Eric Fisher and Jenna, the now-married JURADO tread similar pathos and a little cheer for CAUGHT IN THE TREES (2008) {*8}, expressed fully on the bright morning dew of `Gillian Was A Horse’, `Trials’ and `Coats Of Ice’. If one could almost hear the ghosts of ELLIOTT SMITH and Kurt Cobain, sadness was restored by the dark `Caskets’, and laid-bare further on `Sorry Is For You’ and `Last Rights’.
SAINT BARTLETT (2010) {*8} continued on his thrust to restore alt-country-folk back to the masses, and supersede his heroes NEIL YOUNG and ELLIOTT SMITH in the process. Backed only by producer/solo artist RICHARD SWIFT, one reviewer said it best by laying Damien between The BAND and The FLAMING LIPS; one could also throw in SMOG and MARK EITZEL (under the spell of PHIL SPECTOR on `Arkansas’ and `Cloudy Shoes’). Peppered with songs that grew with each listen, the vast Americana wilderness of serene sludge could be unearthed on the yearning `Rachel & Cali’, `Kansas City’ and `Kalama’.
On the back of an intimate concert detailing his best-of career up to now: LIVE AT LANDLOCKED (2011) {*7}, 2012’s Swift-produced MARAQOPA {*8} was JURADO’s attempt at a concept set. Concerning a man who disappears when he discovers the mysteries of Maraqopa (a euphemism for life itself, no doubt), the record was arguably his most adventurous to date. While many pundits would be excused for thinking this was yet another fragile and austere JURADO set which left room for meandering melodies and sombre choruses, the troubadour could broaden his palette on everything from `Nothing Is The News’ and `Life Away From The Garden’, to `Museum Of Flight’ and `Mountains Still Asleep’.
By the release of 2014’s BROTHERS AND SISTERS OF THE ETERNAL SON {*7}, Damien had turned 41, significant only in the fact he’d finally hit the lower echelons of the charts, in both the US and the UK. Looking for clues to his new-found success was probably down to his previous, sonically-enhanced venture, although here, there were echoes of Laurel Canyon psychedelia and BON IVER on `Return To Maraqopa’, `Jericho Road’, `Magic Number’ and `Silver Katherine’.
The unplanned life-cycle trilogy brought to a close in the thought-provoking VISIONS OF US ON THE LAND (2016) {*8}, JURADO pondered the future rather than harking from the past. While the Utopian “Maraqopa” reflected his fragile foreboding, the 17 shorter, 2-3 minute songs here brought back memories of SPARKLEHORSE, SPIRIT, COLIN BLUNSTONE and, of course, ELLIOTT SMITH. Gaining only critical acclaim, the somewhat overlooked poet JURADO delivered a true alternative to his peers by way of `Mellow Blue Polka Dot’, `QACHINA’, the echo-y `Lon Bella’, `Sam And Davy’, `TAQOMA’ (very RICHARD THOMPSON) and the graceful `Cinco De Tomorrow’.
2018’s self-produced THE HORIZON JUST LAUGHED {*8} had a more personal, poetic and profoundly poignant outlook for the as yet undiscovered JURADO; as least in commercial terms. FATHER JOHN MISTY and NATHANIEL RATELIFF both sung his praises loudly on this occasion, an album said to be a myriad of melancholy memories under a worryingly non-empathetic America awaiting some truths from somewhere. A hushed Damien namechecked public figures (rather than major cultural icons) from his deep dichotomy for `Dear Thomas Wolfe’ (novelist), `Percy Faith’ (easy listening bandleader) and `Marvin Kaplan’ (comedy actor), whilst he addressed his late grandmother (dressed in turquoise) and others via `1973’, `Lou-Jean’ and `Florence-Jean’.
Cut in his new L.A. locale in just a few hours and stripped to the bare-bones of just singer-songwriter’s JURADO’s vocals, his guitar, and some auxiliary guitar from Josh Gordon, IN THE SHAPE OF THE STORM (2019) {*7}, was short and to the point. So, 10 songs in under a half hour, the unmistakably melancholy of the man captured the hearts and minds of his many rainy-day devotees. If the dreamier Damien had fresh landscapes and people to paint, then his eloquent brush strokes unveiled the poignant `Newspaper Gown’, `Silver Ball’, `Where You Want Me To Be’ and `Lincoln’.
Whether Damien was forced to just allow his next work, WHAT’S NEW, TOMBOY? {*7}, to be dispatched on May 1, 2020; as Covid-19 cut into people’s lives and livelihoods all across the States and beyond, well not everything could be paused in time. The nature of JURADO’s independence – as with other major artists – gave the troubadour an opportunity to reflect on matters closer to home. His friendship with frequent collaborator Richard Swift, who died a few years earlier, had brought about track two, `Ochoa’; the name of the musician’s proper surname. If one could imagine NICK DRAKE sharing a space somewhere in time with Kurt Cobain, then the sombre `When You Were Few’ was equally effective. The stalwart Josh Gordon played his part, especially in the stark alt-country lean-to of opener, `Birds Tricked Into The Trees’, whilst the other download single, `Alice Wyatt’ (and highlights `Arthur Aware’, `Francine’ and `End Of The Line’), would’ve probably seen off any tumbleweed blues.
© MC Strong 2011/GFD2 // rev-up MCS Mar2016-May2020

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