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Patrick Brickel, (Songs Patrick Brickel from) The Pink Sofa (Trailer)
by: Steve Horowitz

American roots music lovers consider The Band's first album, Music from Big Pink, a landmark record. Fresh from jamming with Bob Dylan, the group's debut release mined the heart and soul of country and folk traditions to forge a new kind of rock that sounded old as the hills with songs like "The Weight" and "I Shall be Released," the latter written by Dylan. Patrick Brickel's new solo disc, (Songs from) The Pink Sofa, evokes the spirit of The Band's seminal record. The similarity of titles may simply be serendipitous but this does not seem likely, as some compelling connections exist. The former founding member of The Mayflies of Johnson County (later The Letterpress Opry) purposefully evokes the work of the Minnesota troubadour on the first track, "The Ghost of Hollis Brown," whose title character recalls an old Dylan tune "The Ballad of Hollis Brown." Brickel fuses together folk and old time country music traditions like The Band, and his guitar picking method summons up the spirit of Robbie Robertson.

Still, one doesn't want to make too much of the connections. Brickel's music mostly pays homage with a nod and a wink to his influences. The tenor voiced, acoustic guitar playing songwriter has a distinctive, crisp clean style. Sometimes The Band purposely sounds mushy for effect, as if the members are performing drunk and sloppy. Brickel's songs feature more space and resonance to create a sparser and more sober audio landscape. Brickel has vast studio expertise and has worked as a recording engineer on folk music star Greg Brown's last two Trailer Records releases. Brickel is ably backed here by many of Iowa City's best acoustic musicians including Marty Letz on pedal steel, Bob Black on banjo, Dave Zollo on piano, Al Murphy on fiddle, Nate Bassinger on organ, and Amy Finders on vocal harmonies.

Brickel has always been a fine songwriter who deals with dark themes. He continues this tradition on (Songs from) The Pink Sofa. The aforementioned Hollis Brown tune takes the title character, who in real life and Dylan's song, killed himself and his family in desperation as bad luck and worse weather took his farm and livelihood. Brickel's exorcism has Brown's ghost on the run, filled with "love and loss and yearning." The stoic "Coal Dust Flowers" concerns the slow death by gas of a miner trapped underground. The narrator of the lilting "Vermillion Trees" compares his love to "a willow weeping but for you." Several songs are more jaunty and bittersweet, such as the playful "Possums," the Beatlesque "Julianna" (think: "Julia") and the melodic "Martha Falling Down."

Every tune on the disc shines brightly with Brickel's fine singing, creative writing, and deft performing talents. He knows how to phrase lines to understate deep emotions, whether he's telling someone to "get the fuck out of my place" or evoking a complex sentiment for a boozy lover ("mercy is as mercy does/and mercy always goes"). He uses his guitar to explore the nuances of thought and feeling the words suggest. The record rarely gets loud, but Brickel's quiet intensity always keeps things sonically and lyrically interesting.