Vergennes-based folk/country troubadour Josh Brooks  has reemerged a lengthy seven years since his well-regarded sophomore effort, Better Days. Brooks’ new release adds to an already impressive back catalog of folksy fables set to wholesome country strains. But in terms of production and recording technique, Lesson Learned represents a different pass over familiar folk and country terrain and bears the mark of a craftsman still trying to embrace his artistic progression.
Brooks is the complete singer-songwriter package, possessing a limber, robust baritone and admirable command of the guitar. These talents reinforce his narrative focus and the resulting record clearly demonstrates his gifts as a storyteller. His tales are never mired in poetic complexity. He is indeed a bard of the people.
But the album captures two artists who seem somewhat at odds. The first is something of a cliché: the road-weary, lonesome bandleader eager to get a rise out of the barroom. The second is a somber, artistic voice struggling with past indiscretions. The record’s high points come from the latter.
Tracks such as the powerful opener, “El Dorado,” are set forth in conversational banter. So too is the somber “This Bar Is Full of Broken Hearts,” on which Brooks sings, “There’s a guy there in the corner / With one hand under his chin / And the other round the bottle / He’s been drowning his sorrows in.”
“Band”-oriented cuts featuring drummer Kent Blackmer are conceptually solid but poorly executed. The din of cymbals drowns out barely perceivable chord progressions, harmonica and background vocals. It’s almost like Brooks haphazardly aims at catching a live-band aesthetic by simply playing as loud as possible. Songs such as the aforementioned “El Dorado” and “That’s Not Me” suffer as a result, mostly because Blackmer’s great drumming falls victim to its own poorly captured, tinny bombast. The conspicuous absence of a bass player or low-end accompaniment of any kind is equally off-putting.
The duo backs off a bit for “Haunting Me,” one of the record’s better multi-instrument moments. Brooks’ voice ascends to a poignant but steady ferocity to Blackmer’s march. The track is a rare, subtle convergence of the album’s two conflicting styles.
“Sorry For It All,” which Brooks performs solo, could easily be disregarded as just another country heartbreak song. However, a careful listen reveals that it is not just the album’s best track but a stirring combination of delicate timing, melody and narrative. It illuminates a truly talented artist who is approaching the top of his game. Let’s hope we won’t have to wait seven more years for that Josh Brooks to reappear.