A case can be made for a thriving subgenre of emo-folk music. Combining lyrical obsessions with themes like social isolation, depression, suicide, and all manner of angst that originated with grunge music and hardcore punk, it is played with the musical simplicity and restraint of folk or unplugged rock. One of the patron saints is the late Elliott Smith, whose personal life and much of his music were sort of an emo/drug/depression case study. Some of the softer tracks by Death Cab For Cutie and Panic at the Disco fit the mold as well.
El Cajon’s Bradley Keen has evidently been listening in, if his debut CD Songs from Another Room is any indication. The 13-track album features all originals, with most of the instruments played by Keen. For the most part the music is muted, simple, soft keyboard/guitar mid-tempo frameworks on which to hang the lyrics, which is what the project seems to mainly be about (the four-page foldout artwork and disc case includes every lyric to all 13 songs). The songs don’t have big dynamics, and Keen’s double-tracked voice is almost hypnotically soft and innocuous. No solos, no harmonies, no background singing and few choruses, but lots of verses.
Keen starts off with a light touch on “Rose Garden,” about him and his friends hanging out in Balboa Park on weekends, wishing for nothing but to “drink ourselves stupid.” It’s a quirky and humorous start, but the mood darkens soon. “First Thoughts on Ramblin’” has a pleasant melody, a repetitive mantra about Keen wanting to leave before failing to live up to the expectations of others. Keen turns “Hold My Hand” into an addiction confessional, a first-person combination pity party/depressing saga about how “I guess the drugs and alcohol/ Don’t make the artist after all.” Next, “I’m Alright” shows he isn’t; it’s three verses that ask, in turn, Jesus, his father, and his mother what has he done to earn their disapproval (well, except mom, who he tells he’s okay).
“I don’t want this for you, babe” is the chorus of “I Might,” a ballad about staying isolated for fear of going back on drugs. The emo vibe doesn’t lighten up, for “It’s Down the Road, Not Across the Street,” the female subject is a self burner/cutter lost in despair and the song is a sort of a suicide note-ending with the act itself. Keen is introspective on “Better Than I Am,” and while he has trouble handling the vocal, the message here is surprisingly positive, about trying to exceed limitations and improve himself. “Ten Years Behind” finds Keen delivering a post-mortem on a long-term, failed relationship, “The walls of winter bring no relief/The heat inside your eyes was always out of reach.” Good imagery here, lyrically; it is the best work on the disc.
Bradley Keen’s new disc offers an interesting juxtaposition of light, edgeless melodies and dark, edgy messages. Fans of emo bands and singers like Elliott Smith will find much to enjoy.