by Kerry DooleFor those of us lamenting the decline of the protest song in contemporary folk, Toronto troubadour Jon Brooks is a refreshing tonic. He’s an acerbic commentator on social and political issues, as he shows with great eloquence on The Smiling & Beautiful Countryside, his fifth album.
Don’t let the title fool you; the landscape here is populated by serial killers, gunrunners and wife beaters, and the catalogue of horrors is rather unrelenting (his label’s bio jokingly notes the murder ballad death count in each song, totalling 75!) Opening cut and album highlight “Gun Dealer” is a song Steve Earle would be proud to claim. In a staccato delivery, Brooks spits out a rhymed shopping list of armaments: “Whatever you are/ A psychopath or a hunter/ I got what you need/ No serial numbers.” His lyrics are as poetic as they are powerful, with influences and inspirations ranging from Shakespeare and Milton to Marx and Baudelaire. He often mines real-life events for material, with “Queensville” probing the Christine Jessop murder and “Worse Than Indians” being based on the neo-genocidal relocation of the Sayisi Dene.
Songs range from the short and pointed (the minute-and-a-half “These Are Not Economic Hard Times”) to the epic (the 12-minute ballad of a mass murderer “The Only Good Thing Is An Old Dog”). Brooks’ gruff and convincing voice is always front and centre here, as he is the only instrumentalist (guitar and banjitar) featured. Producer David Travers-Smith (Oh Susanna, Wailin’ Jennys) keeps things clean and uncluttered. This is uneasy listening at its best.