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Notable CD's

Notable CDs | Four CDs by the recently deceased Stephen Bruton reviewed by Arsenio Orteza

What It Is (1993)

"I've got a big top hat and a crown of thorns, just like you know who," sang Bruton on this, his solo debut. Together with what follows ("I heard my ship is sailing in. / Lord knows she's overdue"), such lyrics exemplify Bruton's knack for conversationally ­conflating the sacred and the profane, the familiar and the unexpected. "When there's no way around what you've just been through," he also sang, "[and] that nothing is really yours to keep, / you'll find that love's a river / and that river runs deep."

Nothing But The Truth (1998)

Of the many songs that Bruton composed, none owed as much to the style of his friend T-Bone Burnett as this album's "When Love Finds You," the spoken verses of which comprise a third-person narrative of a bedeviled truth seeker that's very much of a piece with Burnett's "House of Mirrors" (from Truth Decay, an album on which Bruton played). And although Bruton sometimes criticized his own singing, here, most notably on the reggae-inflected "Trip Around the Sun," he sings at least as well as Jackson Browne.

Spirit World (2002)

Bruton could be long-winded, and sometimes he was content to let sleeping clichés lie when he should've been beating them with a stick, but these defects are portable with other graces, and Bruton had plenty. One: He composed melodies that stick. Another: His backbeats grooved and shuffled when they had to. Third, and most pleasantly surprising of all given his sideman proclivities: Bruton was singing less like a guitarist and more like the relaxed, confident, and often thoughtful 54-year-old he was.

From the Five (2005)

WORLD's 2005 review of this album called it "roots rock, blue-eyed R&B" and quoted a verse of "Walk by Faith" ("If you stumble / and you fall, / you might lose your will to fight. / But conquer self / and you can conquer all / if you walk by faith, not by sight") before describing it as being "of a piece with the late-'70s/early-'80s gospel rock recorded by Bob Dylan and T-Bone Burnett, both of whom employed Bruton during his years as a guitarist for hire." It still is.


According to one obituary, the cancer from which Stephen Bruton died on May 9 at the age of 60 had been "in and out of remission for about three years." That timetable may explain why he made his last solo album (From the Five [New West]) in 2005, but it doesn't explain why its songs seem to have been composed by someone who already knew he was not long for this world. "Like a slow-burning candle," sang Bruton, "I thought it would last. . . . Now there's less of my future / and more of my past."

Neither does it explain "Bigger Wheel," "In the Wind," or "Walk by Faith," songs that describe rebirth so eloquently that one would've thought their composer had firsthand knowledge of the phenomenon. Perhaps Bruton did. It's a possibility that makes his polite but firm refusal to be ­interviewed by WORLD in 2005 (he didn't want to be seen as endorsing religion) sadder now than it was then.


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