The Grey Agents guitarist and primary songwriter Brian Cottrill steps away from the band with Through the Keyhole, his first solo release. Cottrill deserves immense credit for a willingness to step away from The Grey Agents and present his songwriting talents in the unvarnished form of performances consisting of little more than acoustic guitar and harmonica. He, likewise, deserves listener’s respect for plowing in familiar fields for singer/songwriters but bears the fruit of unusual yields – Cottrill writes about things we all know and recognize, but he finds a distinct turn of phrase for his take on long standing themes. He doesn’t possess a traditionally “fine” singing voice, but Cottrill understands how to get the most out of working within its limitations and he proves more than capable of carrying these cuts.
The first song “Remember My Name” hits with assertive punch a mid-tempo pace. It is clear Cottrill knows his way around a studio. Trash any notions of the indie nature of the recording compromising its sonic character; we live in an age where serious musicians and songwriters can deliver five star recordings on limited budgets. The sparse instrumentation of Through the Keyhole doesn’t require extensive production work but I enjoy how Cottrill captures each of the ten songs with urgent energy. The chorus for this track makes it clear why he chose this song for the album’s opening slot.
There’s a touch of bitterness in the lyrical content for “All I’ve Got Is You”, but it’s tinged with an air of resigned humor unique for such songs. I love the level of specific lyric detail so often a feature in Cottrill’s songwriting and this track is no exception. The chorus is a high point, though not quite as memorable as what I heard with the opener. Cottrill’s skills for crafting songs with solid structure are illustrated well by this track. “Lace” is the oldest song on this cross-section of compositions culled from over the course of Cottrill’s songwriting life but it shows his youthful promise as a musician while benefitting from his more experienced older self bringing more gravity and technique to the song.
“Lost and Forgotten” is one of the album’s centerpiece moments for me. Cottrill’s songwriting skills fully flower with this intense personal reflection on longstanding connections, complicated pasts, and what we can learn when we examine those things in a healthy way. The maturity of the point of view and deceptive simplicity of the music come together well. He adopts a languid tempo for the song complementing the emotional mood. There’s isn’t a hole to be found in this track. The apocalyptic slant of “When the Fire Comes” is never too oppressive; Cottrill keeps the track humming at a steady uptempo pace from the first. Another wise songwriting touch distinguishing the tune is the sensitivity of the song rather than coming off like some Jeremiah foretelling end times.
He keeps the winning streak rolling with the track “Uncertain Keyhole Jangle. The eye for significant detail I mention earlier in this review hits its zenith with this song and it helps make it stand out from the pack. “Sammie Lee”, a song about Cottrill’s parents, reveals more about the flesh and blood human being behind these tracks and he brings one of his more emotive vocals to the table for this one. Brian Cottrill takes an unexpected turn, perhaps, with the bonus track “Gates of Venus”. It breaks with the preceding nine songs with its use of a full band arrangement, but the relaxed electric folky vibe pervading the tune makes it an effective exclamation point for this release.
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