William Ben Brooks is a singer and songwriter originally from southern Oklahoma and now based in Brooklyn, New York. His music is a blend of folk, rock, blues and country, essentially Americana, though also tinged with touches of soul and gospel.
His music has appeared on prime time shows like How I Met Your Mother and The Late Show with David Letterman, along with several film credits, numerous accolades and awards for his songwriting.
This album, A Broken Beast, consists of 14 songs and features a stellar cast of Grammy and Emmy award winning musicians including Catherine Russell (David Bowie, Steely Dan), Janie Barnett (Linda Rondstadt, Rickie Lee Jones), Ms. Nicki Richards (Madonna), multi-Emmy winner Robbie Kondor (Eric Clapton, Aretha Franklin, Billy Joel) and Jon Gordon (Suzanne Vega, Madonna) on guitars and bass, amongst others.
The album gets off to a strong start with the five minute upbeat rock of And I Heard. Starting with earthy, country tinged lead guitar it breaks out into a strident rock groove with a biting guitar riff. Breaking down to strummed acoustic guitar for the verse, William’s warm and charismatic vocals take centre stage. His vocal style is both edgy and easy on the ear, delivered with passion and conviction, lying halfway between Bob Dylan and Neil Young.
Musically, it is furthered enriched by warm organ and a cluster of gospel-tinged female backing harmonies on the hook, “I won’t know…”. Lyrically, it’s about the possibility of a relationship with a potential femme fatale as captured by the evocative, Cohen-esque opening lines: “And I heard that you were wild like an unleashed feral child, with all your lovers stacked and piled…”.
Blindside shows the more Cat Stevens folk-influenced side to his songwriting. Over delicately picked acoustic guitar, Brooks delivers an enigmatic lyric that offers glimpses into a dark emotional situation: “How could you bring us to this place? And not even show your face…”.
As the song progresses it builds into a powerfully epic rock track augmented by cellos playing in a taut, rhythmic fashion as well as more soulful female backing vocals. The contrasting dynamics between the different sections is highly effective and it’s another excellent piece of work.
Remedy displays his more bluesy side, built around a simple, strutting groove, smoky clavinet and subtle guitars. It’s one of the album’s most instant and catchy songs with its infectious title hook and easy to relate to lyrics, devoted to a special someone who makes it all worthwhile: “I can hit the wall, I can take the fall, I can bear it all cause I love you…”. A fun and funky track that could really open some doors, commercially speaking.
You and Me is slightly different once again, this one rooted in a country sound and style. It brings back the organ and sharp lead guitar lines of the first track and features and great call and response vocal section with his ever present female backing singers, who are an integral part of his signature sound. The title hook is memorable once more and it’s well crafted as always.
The Beauty Of It All is another fine showcase for his compositional skills, this one a tender and poignant piano ballad featuring an emotive and affecting vocal performance from Brooks. It’s about choosing to find beauty in all the lows as well as the highs in a romantic relationship: “I recall every trip and fall, every bliss, large and small, every twist and turn, every soothe and burn but I choose to see the beauty of it all….”.
Sweet, Safe and Sound continues in a similar vein, this one recalling Bruce Springsteen in its vocal delivery and powerful poetic imagery: “Either it’s love or its hate, maybe it’s God or it’s fate, it’s all just a gift or a curse, it’s the front or the back of the hearse”.
Seventh track It Is What It Is stands out as a real highlight, an upbeat Addicted To Love-style rocker where his band cook up an incredible energy. William’s vocals combine with his backing singers on the chorus to great effect and the guitar solo is exquisitely crafted. It’s about truly enjoying the moment you’re experiencing and the joyous vibe of the music mirrors this sentiment perfectly.
Worst Case Scenario Number 139 is one of the lighter hearted songs on the album, bringing to mind the playful tone of Randy Newman. It features some great barrelhouse piano and bluesy bursts of harmonica. Too Many Fields takes us back into the realms of folk, with a Stairway to Heaven-style intro. It’s perhaps the heaviest song lyrically, portraying the horror of both slavery and war: “Beaten down by the sun and whip…..buried deep in the trench and the smoke”. A very affecting and poignant track that shows his considerable artistic range.
Saved Me for Last is another that plucks at the heartstrings, a delicate piano ballad with an intimate vocal performance. It finds him in a dark place after a relationship has ended badly: “Just confusion with no conclusion to this hell you threw me in….”
Too Soon is my personal favourite on the album, a fast paced rocker driven by a fearsome guitar riff, courtesy of Jon Gordon (who also contributes bass). It’s a duet of sorts, featuring some fantastic call and response sections with Catherine Russell, whose soulful high register tone provides the perfect counterpoint to Brook’s earthy delivery. A storming track.
We Ain’t Going Anywhere is very much in keeping with his signature style, a mid-paced folk-tinged rock song, though lyrically it is something of an outsider anthem for anyone who is regarded as a little different: “Well, we know you pray that we just go away cause you don’t like what we do or say….”. The vocal arrangement is particularly strong on this one, with a memorable title hook.
In This Room is a haunting acoustic folk ballad based on a descending chord sequence. It was co-written with the best selling author Julia Cameron, who wrote The Artist’s Way. It’s a beautifully crafted song that captures the essence of deep and transformative moments in life: “Dreams change hands here forever, lips are sealed here forever, hearts are broken open here forever….”.
The album closes with another moving ballad, Lisa’s Lullaby, that feels like an outpouring of emotion and love for the person in question. The backing harmonies are positively angelic. The final verse conveys the depth of his emotion and need to provide comfort: “And if you should find yourself frightened from the monsters that all of us fear, I will fill your ears with love songs till we both know the coast is clear…”. The way he sings the final words (“Please…just listen to me”) is a powerful and poignant way to complete the album’s emotional journey.
Overall, A Broken Beast is an album that captures William Ben Brooks at the height of his artistic powers. Equally adept at writing and performing both gritty rock tracks and the gentlest of acoustic ballads, his songs run the gamut of life’s vicissitudes and one comes away with a new perspective on what it means to be human. And that, ultimately, is the measure of art and an artist. Highly recommended.
VERDICT = 9.2 out of 10
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