In 2013, one of the biggest and most unlikely musical takeaways for this particular music junkie was a breakneck, high-octane bluegrass band from Germany called the Dinosaur Truckers. Yes, Germany is not necessarily what most would consider a hotbed of American string band music, but however unlikely the story, the music of the Dinosaur Truckers spoke for itself.
The fascination with the band started with their speedy and adept instrumentation that would outpace most of the bands stateside, but when their self-titled LP arrived, it was the songwriting of frontman Philip Bradatsch that might have been most surprising. Any bored and mildly-motivated young man or woman can teach themselves how to move their fingers really fast, but it takes a deeply burning passion to really hone in on the art of songwriting, especially when you’ve decided to work in a foreign-based roots genre articulated in a foreign tongue. It was almost as if the Dinosaur Truckers and Philip Bradatsch thought it would be too easy, and too obvious to just wow people with speed and composition. So they picked the hardest part of playing bluegrass—writing meaningful songs—and honed in on that to prove their devotion and study to the discipline.
Unfortunately, a few months ago the Dinosaur Truckers announced they were taking a break from full-time touring. It turns out that the drama and challenges of life on the road aren’t just confined to American bands. If you thought North Carolina or Tennessee was a tough nut to crack for a roots band, just imagine trying to do it in Deutschland. But once you’ve reached down into the inner depths of the human experience to dredge up the purest emotions and dirtiest laundry in the exercise of songwriting, it isn’t something you can just turn off overnight. Though the rest of the Dinosaur Truckers might be eager to catch their breath, the restless and hungry Philip Bradatsch soldiers on with a new solo acoustic effort called When I’m Cruel.
As a general rule, solo acoustic albums a pretty tedious things, regardless of the value of the songs themselves. There’s a reason most popular music is made by bands, or artists with bands behind them. But again, there seems to be something lurking within Philip Bradatsch that enjoys a good challenge. He decided to become a master instrumentalist, and accomplished this goal. He decided to tackle the songwriting discipline, and passed with flying colors. And now he asks if he can strip the music back to just a solo act and still hold an audience. In regards to When I’m Cruel, the answer is a resounding “yes.”
And Philip Bradatsch also seems to be a fan of venturing out of comfort zones. Where the Dinosaur Truckers were very much in the Gothic vein of stringband music and were punk inspired, his solo effort is fairly straight ahead singer/songwriter material, not relying on speed or proficiency or dark chords, and instead calling on more conventional modes and even space at times to help tell the story. Though there are flourishes of Bradatsch’s brilliance with guitar and banjo, other times he simply relies on the pauses and the melody to build a song, like with the final selection of the album, the tasteful instrumental on banjo, “Powder & Smoke.” And even though the album only features Philip by himself, ambient interludes between certain songs and the strength of the material make this one of the few acoustic albums worthy of listening to as a cohesive project cover to cover.
But it’s the words that carry When I’m Cruel. The album sees Philip Bradatsch call upon a familiar theme from the Dinosaur Truckers era of not allowing life to pass you by or get the best of you in “This Time Around.” But where When I’m Cruel scores its deepest marks is when he gets personal. “Land Of Disease” sounds like it could be about the heyday of the Dinosaur Truckers, and the band’s hiatus. The “When I’m Cruel” title track sets the album’s high water mark for songwriting, with cutting lines and excellent verbal choreography accompanied by savory guitar playing.
It’s so easy to consider our overseas country music brethren as second-class, or curious in their fascination with a foreign art form. But with When I’m Cruel, Philip Bradatsch doesn’t just announce himself as an accomplished roots-leaning singer songwriter living on foreign soil, he announces himself as one of the strongest voices in songwriting at this particular moment, regardless of the country of origin.
Hopefully, solo or with a band, he continues.
1 3/4 of 2 Guns Up.
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