Starkness on the Edge of Town

Friday, 3:35 a.m. The city looks bleak through a third-floor apartment window. Cold, empty, lonely, a bit spooky. Stay quiet long enough, though, and you can barely—just barely—pick up faint rustlings of life echoing from other parts of the building. A door slams—someone coming home? Someone leaving for work? Or was that bang really a gunshot? Through the air shaft by the bathtub, faint remnants of a couple's drunken argument filter in. A boom car cruises by on the street below, shattering the calm with vibrant bursts of hip-hop, taillights growing smaller as it disappears into the night, tearing off to nowhere in particular until it's silent again. A shadow flutters out in the hall, past the decorative glass covering the front door, then vanishes. Somewhere else, a phone rings, but no person or machine is there to pick it up. And then it just . . . stops.

A perfect time to be listening to Damien Jurado.

Seattle singer/songwriter Jurado makes hauntingly beautiful suicide music. Pretty breakup music. Creepy, murder-your-lover music. Like the world at 3:35 a.m., his songs are dark, disturbingly real pieces that put you into a weird headspace you don't necessarily want to be in, but you can't help exploring. His new album, Ghost of David, is filled with rich character studies —brothers gone insane, screwed-up lovers, assorted betrayals, crumbling relations, murderous allusions and lots of suppressed pain—sparse, hushed and gloomy, like a true folk record ought to be. But Jurado has this neat way of turning all this starkness into light when he wants to, even on an old Appalachian chestnut like "Rosewood Casket," which is about mourning the death of a child; with his gentle acoustic picking and boyishly high singing voice, he makes it feel like a love song, which, beneath the bleak, it is.

Songs like these framed last year's equally fine Rehearsals for Departure, also loaded with intense, moving portraits of ordinary folks who seem to teeter on the verge of nervous breakdowns—not unlike one Jurado suffered, perhaps fittingly, during the album's recording. Cheeriness, it seems, isn't Jurado's fort.

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"If you wanna hear a happy record, go listen to a happy record," he told me last year around the time of Rehearsal for Departure's release. "We live in an age where there's so much crap and fluff. I'd rather write about stuff that's real to me, stuff that we've all experienced, like breaking up or leaving. That's why I called the album Rehearsals for Departure—because we're all eventually going to die, we're all going to leave our home, family and friends and move somewhere. Or they'll move somewhere. That's real life. That's what I write about."

Jurado is so fascinated by the real and the ordinary that he makes a habit of perusing thrift stores and yard sales, searching for old, forgotten tape recordings and answering machine tapes—private stuff that often reveals people's innermost turmoil. Earlier this year, he compiled some of his collection into a CD, Postcards and Audio Letters, and though there's no music on it, it's every bit as naked as Jurado's songs—a separated couple argue over child custody, another couple ponders whether their romance is over. It's unsettling in that voyeuristic way, but that realism makes it perhaps the scariest album of the year—these people aren't mere characters, they're all of us, folks who spend all their lives at 3:35 a.m., wondering if they'll ever see sun-up.

Damien Jurado performs at Fingerprints, 4612 E. 2nd St., Long Beach, (562) 433-4996. Wed., 6:30 p.m. Free. All ages; and later with songs: ohia, map and david peterson at Koo's Art Cafe, 1505 N. Main St., Santa Ana, (714) 648-0937. Wed., 8 p.m. $5 donation suggested. All ages.

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