Guitarist Michael Brook is definitely more of a cult hero than a chart-topper. But a list of those he’s worked with—from the late genius Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan to Youssou N’Dour as well as Robert Fripp, the Pogues, Jane Siberry and many others—shows just how well regarded he is. Brook is a true musician’s musician. At the same time, he’s more than just a sideman and producer, as his third solo album (after a gap of 13 years), RockPaperScissors, amply illustrates.
Releasing the disc on his own Canadian Rational label, Brook describes this new undertaking as “exciting and scary, but at least I make my own mistakes.”
“I was very close to a deal with a label, but I didn’t have a tour set up,” he adds. “And they said they couldn’t give me a release date until then. If I’d gone with a label, I couldn’t have released this record in 2006. So many things have changed now. The record company used to provide the tools to make an album, then to market and distribute it. Then the tools got super-cheap, and now, in some ways, the threshold of entry for marketing and distribution has lowered—the ‘long tail.’ There’s a hypothesis that most people’s taste is more eclectic than companies believe. With Amazon, iTunes, and MySpace, it’s economically viable for people like me with widely dispersed but reasonably large fan bases, so we can make a living. The term comes from the Bell Curve; it was coined in Wired.”
RockPaperScissors is an expansive record, as atmospheric as anything Brook’s done in the past. He’s working with a broader palette this time out, however, bringing on board guests like singer-songwriter Lisa Germano (“unbelievably great, a true artist who follows her muse, and incredibly talented”) and a Bulgarian choir, who add their unique harmonies to the record alongside a regular choir, making for a remarkable wall of voices.
“Richard Evans, who worked on the album with me, had played in Bulgaria with Peter Gabriel, and he’d met a guy there who offered to help him out if he wanted to work there,” Brook explains. “We were both fans of Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares. The Bulgarian women were great at what they did, but they couldn’t do Western [choral singing], so we ended up having to get a second choir in!”
Brook’s guitar work is front and center throughout. He’s both skilled and imaginative, especially when employing his trademark “infinite guitar” sound, which he explains “actually simulates standing next to a very large amplifier, but it’s not acoustically-based, it’s electrically-based, so it’ll work with headphones, for example, and it’s much more controllable.”
There’s a definite sense of fun about the record, particularly evident on “Silverized” and “Tangerine,” where Brook seems to cut loose from the sense of control that sometimes permeates his productions.
“‘Silverized’ was this Marlboro Man, western guitar that goes transcendental and psychedelic,” he says, “and ‘Tangerine’ is intentionally a one-take performance. It started with slide guitar, and [violinist] Claude Chalhoub doubled that, and it just happened. It’s the only one that came together quickly. They’re both real time, unlike the others.”
RockPaperScissors is, more than anything, an album that brings Brook out of his shell, finding him collaborating with people from a broad range of traditions and styles. The title track features a vocal by Blue Nile’s Paul Buchanan and lyrics by L.A.-based singer-songwriter Shira Myrow. “I was a bit leery of incorporating lyrics,” Brook says, “because, to my taste, they’re often overwhelmingly bad. So I was wary, but it proved interesting to see real lyrical intelligence at work.”
Two of the centrepieces are actually duets with artists not living. “Dark Room” features acclaimed actor Sir Richard Burton reading from Dylan Thomas’s “Under Milk Wood” in a performance Brook thinks is amazing. “It’s very dramatic without bein