Brothers Cosmoline: ‘A different kind of picking cotton’
Saturday night, Sunday morning. It’s hard to have a conversation about country music with Dan Kershaw, lead singer and chief songwriter for Brothers Cosmoline, without that phrase cropping up — probably because country music so often draws its dramatic tension from human duality.
The band’s debut album Songs Of Work And Freedom — originally issued in Canada on the band’s label but scheduled to be released in the U.S. by Slewfoot Records this summer — is not a particularly happy record. Sure, the long-distance trucker in the country-rocker “Kenny” feels his panic relax into an unexpected sense of release when his brakes fail on a mountain road and fate lifts responsibility from his shoulders. Problem is, the hill ends. And while it’s easy enough to guffaw at the easy lay in the country weeper “Motel 6”, our superiority is brought up short when the stock figure abruptly assumes a personal history: “She’s got father in her cheekbones/Mother in her curls.”
“The songs were written on scraps of paper on buses and streetcars,” says Kershaw, a product of the whitebread community of London, Ontario. “It seemed this emotional life that I was having, these songs, was my true life, and this thing I was doing at the office or the gas bar or wherever I happened to be working was just some kind of stand-in.”
Indeed, lives blunted by meaningless work course through the album. Set to a rhythm as relentless as a factory machine, “Bramalea” tells the familiar tale of a Friday night in an industrial town: half-hearted pick-up lines, too much beer, the trap that a steady paycheck springs the second you think about leaving it all behind.
“There’s a different kind of picking cotton,” says Kershaw. “There’s lots of wage slavery and spiritual desolation in urban work environments. People have it easier for creature comforts…but the sense of lives being splintered and disconnected and atomized by the marketplace is pretty pervasive.”
Such desperate themes, along with an upbeat ode or two to happiness, earned Songs Of Work And Freedom a Juno nomination (Canada’s equivalent of the Grammys) in the roots/traditional category last year. The album came some eight years after the original band formed, taking its name and many of its influences from Gram Parsons’ “cosmic American music.”
After a couple of personnel changes, the Brothers Cosmoline has stabilized around Kershaw (who plays acoustic guitar), lead guitarist/mandolinist Steve Briggs, bassist John Switzer, drummer John Adames and pedal steel player Burke Carroll. Band members are involved in side projects, and all five often open a Brothers Cosmoline show as the Brothers Kitchen, hunkering around one mike in tribute to their traditional bluegrass heroes.
The Brothers Cosmoline, who recently were booked to play at the seventh annual Twangfest in June in St. Louis, Missouri, favor original material. Lyrical and musical restraint is the guiding principle in their writing, says Kershaw, pointing to the implicit tension in a song that suggests more than it says. “People forget there’s power in limitations, in rhythm and meter,” he says. “When Alanis Morissette evacuates her diary over a dance beat, she’s just being distended and flat.”
The one cover tune on Songs Of Work And Freedom is a countrified take on the Beatles’ “No Reply”, so anguished that it seems more an existential howl than a mere lovelorn pop song. “There was an emotional kernel in the song that seemed to be saying something different from the arrangement the Beatles used,” says Kershaw. In the studio, “I was thinking of a song by Tammy Wynette called ‘Still Around’. It’s got that lonesome ‘Happy Trails’ rhythm but which is ironically so sad.”