A Clean Brake

Brake wants to shake Ryan Adams. Who doesn't?

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."

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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."

It's a pity that the thirtysomething Brake has denied that half for so long, but he believes it couldn't have happened any other way. He comes from a family of high achievers -- one grandfather was a state senator in Michigan, and the other was the sort of preacher that has a Ph.D. Brake's sister is a Harvard Law grad. Taking the City Streets gig was a compromise of sorts -- it was somewhat respectable, and it paid well. "I had all these things that I was expected to do. So when I made the decision to become a musician, I felt like I had to make good money in order to show them that I was successful. Yes, I can be middle-class like you. Watch. I can play piano and sing and still live down the street from the attorneys. Well, I probably never did make it that far, but I could still have a house and a car. But I got so caught up in that -- it just built up over the years, and the songwriter side of me was just screaming."

It's easy to imagine what family gatherings were like for Brake: pretty much the same as they are for any middle-class kid who chooses an offbeat career path. "Every year at Christmas my family would ask me the same question: 'When are you going back to school?' " Brake remembers. "And my answers would range from 'Why don't you get out of my face?' to 'Never.' "

One year Brake brought his guitar to Christmas dinner and showed rather than told why he would never crack a textbook again. He played them "Sounds of the Sacred," on which he sings, "Now I come from a family of scholarly men who preach the letter and swear by the pen / my sister made A's all the way to the top straight through grad school 'til they made her stop / and at the start I guess I hoped to do the same / but then I played my first guitar / and that changed everything."

"That was quite a few years ago, and they never asked me again," Brake says. There's still a scholarly bent to him, though. You hear it crying out when he talks about his appreciation of other musicians. "You have the people that you grow up listening to, and the people that I call teachers," he says. "Teachers more than inspire you -- they get you there, wherever 'there' is. I'm not saying learning from them will make you famous or anything like that, but they'll help you grow, as a songwriter and maybe as a person too, because being a songwriter is part of you."

Count Paul Westerberg, Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Tom Waits and Guy Clark among the faculty in Brake's personal ivory tower. He says Waits's "Bad Liver and a Broken Heart" made him learn to play jazz, and Clark's remembrance of his late father, "The Randall Knife," also really caught his ear. "When I stopped bawling, I listened to it again to find out how he got me there," he remembers. "Every word was perfect."

Some see Brake's multiple styles as a weakness. "Some songwriters think they have to have their country songs go with other country songs, and the same with their rock stuff. Even if some of the songs on albums like that are good, I get tired. Even guys that are big, like Ryan Adams -- I just want to shake them and go 'Man, have you ever heard the White Album, or Sgt. Pepper's?' We all laugh, we all cry, we all like different types of songs -- what's wrong with putting them all together? If you put the song over, it shouldn't matter."

It doesn't, at least not in this critic's grade book.

David Brake and That Damn Band's upcoming gig schedule includes shows on January 17 at Tutt's, 711 Madeley, Conroe, 936-539-1500; January 24 at the Lone Star Saloon, 102 South Third, Richmond, 281-238-0960; and January 30 at Dan Electro's Guitar Bar, 1031 East 24th, 713-862-8707.

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