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A Clean Brake

After almost losing his voice, country rocker David Brake starts singing his own songs

In this business, now and then you have a day when you feel like the teacher in A Christmas Story. You know the scene -- the one where little Ralphie fantasizes that his teacher is ripping through the stack of lame "What I Want for Christmas" papers, shouting that each one is terrible, and marking them all with big fat F's. Until, of course, she comes to Ralphie's glorious Red Rider essay, which sweeps her off to swoon-ville in a swirling cloud of angelic violins.

It can be like that for music critics. You get a stack of CDs every day, and to be honest, almost none of them are F's, but neither are there very many A's. You get 'em and you peel off the plastic and you crack open the jewel box and nine times out of ten, you hear middling songwriting, fair musicianship and decent arrangements. Most are somewhere in the C-plus range, but you know what they say: Pretty good is the new average.

Then, at last, you come across one like Lean, Mean Texas Machine, David Brake's mélange of foot-stomping Texas country, punchy rock, big-city blues, jazzy piano balladry and a bunch of other good stuff. You actually make it past the second chorus on the first song -- in fact you listen to it all the way through. The same thing happens with the second tune, and the third. The lyrics are cliché-free, and they're delivered by a voice that's full of character. The songs are well structured and varied in tempo, style and even genre. The backing musicians shine, especially lead guitarist Scott McGill. (They even have a cool name -- That Damn Band.) Before you know it, you've made it all the way through the album and enjoyed it from beginning to end. In fact, you wish there were more.

It's especially sweet when a CD like that comes from out of left field, as Brake's did. Though he's a local, I'd never heard of him, nor did I recognize many of the names in the CD booklet. It seemed as if Brake and his players had parachuted into Houston from Nashville or Austin. Turns out Brake's been on the scene for almost a decade, though not in a way that was bound to get him much name recognition. Though he has long written, if not performed, his own songs, Brake spent eight years as a piano man at City Streets, where he played covers for the rowdy Richmond Strip throngs. "I was the obnoxious guy with the City Streets gig," he says. "That is one side of me; I do have a P.T. Barnum side. It was more about the entertainment than the music. It was a three-ring circus, and that's what they wanted."

But there's another side to Brake, the one that creates rather than replicates music, and the one that he's now intent on giving free rein. Right now, almost nobody knows that David Brake, the one who wrote and performed his own stuff. The new David Brake was born after a fairly serious health scare -- early in 2000, a polyp was found on one of his vocal cords. "I knew something was wrong for a long time, and then I finally went to the doctor," he says. "What I vividly remember is him telling me that no matter what he did, I may never sing again. I felt like I was gonna die; it was one of those situations where it's like 'Please, God, if you let me out of this, then I promise to…' I knew that if I got out of that I would have to start doing my own songs."

Brake underwent successful surgery, months of speech therapy and months more of singing therapy. After recovering, he returned to the City Streets gig for a time, but by early 2002 he'd decided to dedicate himself to himself. He sent some demos to producer Dan Workman at Sugar Hill Studios, who was bowled over by "101 Tattoos," Brake's own favorite song on the album, and Workman ended up engineering and partially producing Texas Machine. Still, most people think of Brake as some kind of inexperienced kid. A few months ago, he performed live on the Humble Time radio show, a New Braunfels-based open-mike program for Texas songwriters. Everybody from two-chord wonders to Billy Joe Shaver has played the show, and Brake remembers that the host treated him like one of the rookies, giving him really basic pointers, stuff like "Don't play any covers" and "Stay close to the mike."

"I just kinda let him do it, because that's what I'm gonna get -- nobody knows who I am," he says. "And then I walked on stage, and it went really well, and I felt good about it. To be able to walk in there with just a guitar on my back and my songs and get the crowd to stand up and clap was a different satisfaction than I could ever feel from playing someone else's songs, whether they applaud for ten minutes straight or whatever. It's not just that I did a good job -- I did something for me, too. And that comes from all those years of denying the songwriter half of me."

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