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The image of a lone musician and songwriter singing and playing acoustic guitar for listeners is woven into the fabric of popular music. It suggests vulnerability and fearlessness. The success or failure of the song rests on the shoulders of that performer – there are no additional musicians to cover flat-footed moments or flubs, no electrified wall of sound to shelter them from the audience’s scorn. Brian Cotrrill’s work with West Virginia’s The Grey Agents has brought him a degree of renown as a songwriter, but his first solo release Through the Keyhole illustrates his musical and songwriting talents in a different context than anything The Grey Agents offer. The songs span his adult life – he produced the earliest song, “Lace”, at the tender age of 17 and three of the album’s ten songs are recent. His skills as a multi-instrumentalist come through as well. Cottrill is responsible for every note and drum beat on Through the Keyhole. Cottrill proves with this release that he shares the same traits of bravery and need to communicate that define the singer/songwriting genre.

Cottrill’s avowed influences like Bob Dylan, among others, come through from the outset. “Remember My Name” is full with flashes of playful wordplay, potent and unpredictable lyrical turns, and a chorus paying off big for listeners. He complements his energetic and rhythmic guitar playing with harmonica on point throughout the track. The album’s second song “Erica”, written for Cottrill’s daughter, is an earnest paean avoiding the mawkishness often marring such efforts thanks to the first rate musical accompaniment he provides for the song. The addition of strings adds an unexpected elegiac touch that never undercuts the obvious affection fueling the song.

Cottrill refers to “Lace” as the first song he composed that he believed wasn’t all that bad and it does display remarkable confidence in its composition for a seventeen year old. I cannot help but wonder if Cottrill tinkered, at least, with older songs like this, but it’s ultimately far better to trust the process and enjoy the ride. The forceful acoustic guitar playing is recorded well and makes a good impression. The horror at the heart of “The Murder Farm” comes most from Cottrill’s passionate recital of specific details related to multiple murders. The language is clean and unsparing and gains additional power thanks to the aforementioned bite of Cottrill’s voice. It’s a chilling gem on this release.

Harmonica plays an important role introducing the song “Lost and Forgotten” is an affecting track with simply stated maturity and a sure songwriting hand. Cottrill surveys his past with a mix of forgiveness and regret that represents true understanding; it is, likewise, free of recrimination, even the self-directed kind; such songwriting moments seem, to me, altogether rare. The improbably titled “Uncertain Keyhole Jangle” has more of the same solid unimpeachable acoustic playing defining the album as a whole, but the vocals and lyrics illustrate one of the core strengths of Cottrill’s art – it embodies voice. The storytelling aspects of “Uncertain Keyhole Jangle” are especially strong.

The bonus and sole electrified track included on Through the Keyhole, “Gates of Venus”, nonetheless features Cottrill playing all the instruments on this recording – the light touch of mandolin brings unique color. There’s a whiff of Tom Petty coming from this track, no surprise, but Cottrill’s songwriting voice is unmistakable once again and this song of pure longing has an exhilarating lift. Brian Cottrill’s Through the Keyhole may be the first solo release from this talented songwriter, but it’s a recording decades in the making and explodes with all the passion and creativity you expect. 

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Michael Rand

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