Our Martin Crane, who now records as Brazos, is on track to become a leading musical light, with a burning creative mind and a searching soul. Originally hailing from Austin, Crane currently resides Brooklyn, where he works part time as art handler, "hanging famous paintings in Park Ave apartments."
Brazos gained recognition in 2009 with Crane's self-released debut album, Phosphorescent Blues. His musical path was enlightened by the poetry of feminist and radical, Adrienne Rich. The album was hewn around 'The Observer,' the 1969 Rich poem Crane put to music. From the bouncy, free-formed vocal phrasing of that adaption, the album grew into a hypnotic tour-de-force that combined raw energy and dance rhythms with the subtle intricacies of jazz and folk. "She was one of my heroes," Crane says, "and when she gave me permission to use her poem and said that she was excited to hear the record, it was a huge moment for me."
Brazos, in it's original incarnation, went on to open for Grizzly Bear, Shearwater, Vampire Weekend, The National, Iron & Wine, Wye Oak and Bowerbirds, as well as a national tour with local pals, White Denim.
Returning home to Austin after a whirlwind of touring and encountering like-minded musical spirits, there was an inevitable come down. "Most of my good friends had moved away from Austin," Crane recalls. "I was working at a phone bank and hanging out in bars a lot. I'd lost touch with the meaningful things." In search of "something new," he packed everything he owned into a 1990 Honda Civic station wagon that he'd had since he was 15 and moved to New York. Rejuvenated, Crane wrote more than 30 songs across a 2-year span, and signed to Dead Oceans.
Recorded with new bandmates Spencer Zahn (bass) and Ian Chang (drums), the initial sessions for Brazos' new album, Saltwater, began with three days of basic tracking where Crane's acoustic guitar, Zahn's warm bass lines, and Chang's frenetic, melodic drumming were all recorded live. Then, over several months, Crane added and refined layers of pianos, synths, guitars and production embellishment. The multi-talented Sandro Perri mixed the final arrangements into a quixotic melange that is both understated and startlingly honest.
Saltwater was gestated in an atmosphere of listening to "transcendent groove music" – Pharaoh Sanders, Can, Harmonia, Fela Kuti, among a cornucopia of others."Pharaoh Sanders is looking for selflessness and love and peace, and there is no attempt to dress up what he's after," Crane muses. "He is yelling and singing, and it is pure joy. Can is lost in a subconscious world where language interacts with feelings and grooves, kind of like a Cy Twombly painting. Fela is righteous marching music."
Brazos' Saltwater touches upon all these elements, with a light and lilting poise and the unique perspective of Crane, who is doing his utmost to struggle with and make sense of his place in the world.
"I think this record is about learning how to be alone. And I think that's how it's spiritual. You can't actually love anything if you need it. I think this record is an odyssey out into deep solitude in order to really get a grasp of myself."
But don't start thinking Saltwater is a doleful album of introspection – it's just the opposite. Like a stunning spring morning, Saltwater is buoyant, expansive pop, with an astonishingly sure hand of craftsmanship. This is no hazy psych mess, but a spacious, beautifully arranged body of work that is the mark of an important artist.
Opening track 'Always On' begins mid-synth swirl blast, plunging the listener into a dervish of melody and a frenetic beat. 'Charm' jumps down a notch to a loping, staccato groove and seeing-stars joie-de-vivre. By track three 'How the Ranks Was Won,' the cascades of melodic joy have been translated into a tale about the voyage of a ghost ship and its descendants.
Crane says he developed a penchant for New Orleans bounce music at local bounce gigs in Austin – not that this is a psych-folk-bounce album, it's not, but the irrepressible energy, emotional urgency and verve that populates Saltwater cannot be denied.
On the title track, we find Crane using Ishmael, the narrator from Moby Dick, as a surrogate "because he finds a way to talk about the terrible things in a way that's adventurous and curious." This is our Martin Crane – the restless, yearning young musical adventurer, balancing raging power, with a lovely articulation of deep feelings. The song holds its tempo, just barely reined in, with spirals of guitar, swells of organ or explosions of percussion threatening to erupt, while Crane's salty caramel vocal is warm and emphatic.
"I particularly like that in male singers," Crane says, "a sensitive masculinity that makes room for sadness yet still retains its strength." [LESS]