Iowa City attracts songwriters; you might even say it creates them. The “Class of 1970,” which includes Dave Moore, Greg Brown and Bo Ramsey, set the template: rooted in American folk music, but shot through with the personal and the cosmic. Those older artists cast no shade on the younger cohort that includes Ed Gray, Sam Locke Ward and Brooks Strause. Best know for the raucous Old Scratch Revival Singers, Brooks Strause is a prodigious songwriter and a ferocious live performer. In each of his songs, he inhabits a character the way Robert De Niro does. He commits fully, and when he howls like a bereft soul running from the Devil, you can smell the brimstone.
The Chymical Wedding finds Brooks in a reflective mood. In “Too Beautiful” he sings “You’re too beautiful for this ugly world,” describing how love has saved him from “choking on my doubt.” The rhythm of the song is a sort of shambling march, with an intricately nimble melody. “Love Me There” begins with, “Praying hands,” echoing the hands turned to stone of “Too Beautiful,” while the chorus says, “Goddess keeps saying, ‘Be careful what you wish for.’”
The tension between what is wished for and what exists drives these songs. Strause’s voice—a reedy baritone that wavers subtly, accented at times by a purring of vocal fry—is the perfect vehicle to express an uncertain vacillation between belief and disillusionment. The album’s title echoes the title of a Rosicrucian manifesto, and Strause seems to be fascinated and frightened by the intimations of an unseen world around the one we see.
Even while his head is in the clouds, Strause’s strength as a songwriter grounds him. Hints of The Band, The Grateful Dead and even Stephen Foster can be heard. The additional instrumentation added to Brooks’ voice and guitar by producer Pat Stolley gives the album a languid, rootsy feeling. Unexpected choices for roots music, like drum machines and synthesizers, enhance the texture of the production without taking attention away from the songs. And with Brooks, the song is always the thing. There’s nothing here he couldn’t put over by himself with a busted guitar, shouting into the dark.
This article originally appeared in Little Village issue 184.