Raw Materials 

Boston singer-songwriter delivers unflinching rockers and ballads

Boston singer-songwriter delivers unflinching rockers and ballads

Dennis Brennan

Rule No. 1 (Esca Records)

Playing Saturday at Exit/In opening for Orchestra Morphine

Rule No. 1, the title of Dennis Brennan’s third solo album, comes from a line in one of his songs, ”The Book of Love.“ A ferocious garage rocker, the tune suggests that relationships have a set of rules—and his lover has broken them all. ”Damn my virtue and damn your vice,“ Brennan snarls while counting down the rules she’s violated. His anger grows as the song continues, and he screams, ”You’re going to be sorry!“ But he’s not threatening her; instead, he’s condemning her for giving up on someone who treated her right.

Musically, the song is typical of the muscle Brennan flexes elsewhere on the record: It starts at full-speed, with a wailing harmonica pushing along the crashing chords of a buzzing electric guitar; it sounds like a great lost Yardbirds single. Lyrically, it represents what Brennan does best, as concise, punchy lines build up and then turn back on each other with clever precision. ”The Book of Love“ is a dazzling piece of songcraft, and it’s delivered with meat-and-potatoes rock ’n’ roll that never sacrifices power for poetry. Instead, Brennan is that rare rocker who delivers both.

All of which begs the question: Why don’t rock fans know this guy? In Boston, they do. For two decades, Brennan has been in popular bands that were perpetually on the verge of national stardom. As leader of The Martells—which blended punk chords, pop melodies, and R&B rhythms—Brennan regularly found himself compared to Elvis Costello and Graham Parker. The band enjoyed one major hit on hard-to-crack Boston radio, but the right national exposure never materialized.

Later, Brennan fronted Push Push, another guitar-based Beantown favorite. The band flirted with signing major record deals, but they always fell apart at the last minute. Most famously, Brennan kept refusing to change an obscenity in the chorus of one of his catchiest and most popular songs, ”This Kind of Love.“ When Push Push finally recorded an album for Boston’s Tone-Cool Records, the record failed to capture the soaring energy of the band’s live sets.

Eventually, Brennan went to work as a foreman in a warehouse, using the hiatus to focus on his songwriting. Since he embarked on his solo career in 1994, it’s been the songs—succinct, literate, and feral—that have made his solo albums worth seeking out.

The Graham Parker comparison still holds up: Brennan shoots out sparks by lacing the down-and-dirty wallop of first-generation punk rock with a soulful punch and a wide-ranging songwriting ability. Like Parker, he puts a distinct fingerprint on both swaggering rockers and hard-bitten ballads.

The title of Brennan’s latest album suggests that he wants listeners to notice the gutsiness of his songwriting as well as the range and immediacy of his musical arrangements. According to ”The Book of Love,“ rule No. 1 is ”try to be true.“ As a storyteller, Brennan does just that, digging past easy clichés in an attempt to tell the dirty truth of how people love and survive.

The first line of the album establishes his point of view: Drawing out each word for impact over a ringing, Stones-like guitar figure, he seethes, ”Everywhere I hear the sounds of disconnection / Coming at me, calling me out / And it’s got my soul in a twist!“ The song is called ”I Got My Own,“ and it would sound perfectly in place on The Clash’s London Calling or Graham Parker’s Heat Treatment.

The same could be said of the album’s hardest-rocking tune, a careening remake of the singer’s own ”This Kind of Love.“ As befits Brennan’s thematic concerns, even a powerful love is rife with problematic danger. The song opens with a positive declaration, but it doesn’t take long for him to warn, ”This kind of love will put a blade in your back.“

Brennan counters his full-on rock tunes with an occasional ballad or story-song. In Nashville, local radio station The Phoenix-93.7 FM has been playing ”Going Down Gracefully,“ a rock ’n’ roll cocktail tune reminiscent of Elvis Costello when he’s drawing on the melancholy romanticism of Burt Bacharach and Hal David. The song begins with a woman silently suffering from a wronged relationship, as Brennan intones the lines, ”She’s going down gracefully, taking nobody with her.“ By the second stanza, we learn that she’s protecting a local priest who has broken his vows of chastity with her. When the church quietly shuffles the holy man out of town with little fuss, leaving the woman broken and alone, Brennan hints at the decay that runs not just through the characters’ lives, but through society as well.

It’s this kind of depth that gives Brennan’s songs their value, and it crops up repeatedly throughout Rule No. 1. On ”Barbara Allen’s Dream,“ for instance, Brennan not only evokes Barbara Allen and the butcher boy—references that draw on bedrock tunes from the American folklore catalog—he brings Sigmund Freud into his juicy, evocative murder tale as well. Similarly, on ”Government Johnny McKee“—an original that could’ve come from the songbooks of The Pogues or Richard Thompson—he tells of a criminal on the run who comes back into town asking for a late-night meeting with an old friend who’s leading the investigation. The tone in Brennan’s voice intimates that the meeting is not likely to be an amicable one.

Brennan may not be well-known outside of his hometown, but the list of his backing musicians—a who’s who of Boston rock—underscores how highly his peers think of him. His reputation may be slowly spreading too: One of the few collaborative songwriting efforts on Brennan’s new album pairs him with Nashville rocker Bill Lloyd.

But these days fame is little measure of a musician’s worth. Those who enjoy smart, tough, blue-collar rock ’n’ roll will be happy to discover Brennan’s Rule No. 1.

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