Special to AMFM Magazine by John Bartholomew
There is no overabundance of contemporary songwriters who regularly delve into as diverse a variety of styles as does Bruce Hughes. He fits comfortably into no identifiable genre, and in an era when music critics and sizable segments of supporters of Austin’s live music scene choose to seek out just a handful of flavors, this has presented something of a career obstacle, but to his very loyal core of fans, it’s an obvious virtue.
In his Tuesday night live performances at the Saxon Pub, his group Bruce Hughes and the All Nude Army (now often shortened to BHANA) will perform their particular, updated brand of R&B, also hip-hop, reggae, 1970ish folk-tinged rock, the occasional unabashed love paean, pop in the manner of Paul McCartney in his prime, frenetic psychedelic soul, and more. All spring fully formed from the imagination of the group’s leader. Despite their broad range, the songs move from one to the next seamlessly, which must be attributable to the fact that Hughes has his distinct stamp on all of them.
How so? Vocally, he has more than mastered their varied demands, his lyrics warrant attention because they never cease to develop along the way, the melodies take their share of unexpected turns, the harmonic structures visit places seldom heard from anymore, and while the topics might sometimes be familiar, his take on them and the tone of the lyrics won’t be. All that aside, the results are just genuinely and enduringly likable, without which of course none of the preceding would matter.
In his new release, Trap Door, Hughes unexpectedly turns strictly to solo-oriented work, some in the narrative ballad mode and some not. The instrumental parts are exclusively acoustic guitars (okay – I detect an electric on the title track) along with a smattering of percussion and some adept augmentation courtesy of the studio. Hughes himself handles all the singing and nearly all the playing, aided only by guitarists Jud Newcomb on one track, Jeff Plankenhorn on two.
It opens with perhaps his most lilting tune ever, “Days are Beautiful,” a very deliberate realization of the late Harry Nilsson’s artlessly laid-back brand of song. Consistent with the ironic bent of its inspiration, it’s a question with no answer. The first verse having established the tone, our hero sings
The past is merely a speck of light / the future’s a sun, it shines so brightly / that everything feels like any second we could burst into flames / Didn’t you show me / magic powers / Didn’t you tell me / the world is ours / Didn’t you tell me / the days are beautiful now
Bull’s-eye. “Baby I Do” reprises the sky-related theme with
I never count on the stars shining bright but they do / Still keep my windows open at night, yeah it’s true / I’ll be so ready to hold you tight when you / sneak into my room
But after more verses, we get this minor-key refrain, with the lyric phrases chopped where you’d not expect:
And if only love was as easy as this / when you’re close enough to kiss / I keep on giving you all I’ve got / to give as long as I live I insist / don’t let a whisper of doubt enter / into your mind
The namesake song opens with a picked-string motif that could have come straight from the British folk revival music of Fairport Convention, and so it is – a rural narrative in very traditional mode – until the refrain arrives and the narrative line is interrupted:
It’s only one of the many ways that time / will bend back upon itself and show you / how the spring unwinds / All I ask of you is that you try / All I ask of you is why / you’re lying on the floor? / Will you open the trap door?
The shift of tone here is radical, and as the last enigmatic phrases unfold the tempo very tellingly slows to a stop. It’s sung in a pure and sincere manner as meanwhile it upends every expectation you started with. What are we to make of this? The one indisputable conclusion is that Trap Door is a song the likes of which we’ve not heard in many a moon.
On “A Girl Who Reads,” Hughes and Charles Warnke collaborate on the lyrics. It’s an admonishment not to pursue a girl with a literary bent. She deserves better than you, and not only do you know it, she’ll soon know it, too.
“Fearless” carries a Hughesian message with a momentum we’re accustomed to hearing in his electric work:
Talk talk / maybe baby don’t say a word / Sing me a little song instead / while I stretch out here on the bed / Don’t under / estimate the power of / You and me together we could fill the world with / fearless love
And this is all contained in the CD’s first half. Bruce Hughes writes for an audience of people who are comfortable with elements of enigma, and it bears repeating that the songs are inventive in ways that few of his peers manage to pull off. Their sustained high standard of craftsmanship should not mislead anyone into thinking that it must be disguising some shortage of substance at the core. The piece might be depicting one of life’s blessings or one of its curses, but it invariably illuminates, and Trap Door keeps that light shining.