Brian Cottrill has taken an interesting approach to offering a debut solo release. The guitarist and main songwriter for West Virginia’s The Grey Agents turned off his amplifier for Through the Keyhole and picked up an acoustic guitar and harmonica to deliver nine original songs spanning from the age of 17 to modern day. It makes this a more intimate affair than it might otherwise be – in essence, listeners are being treated to an overview of Cottrill’s life and concerns from his adult life. He wears musical influences like Petty, Dylan, and Springsteen on his sleeve, but those influences never dictate the trajectory of his art. Instead, they provide a frame of reference for listeners that place Cottrill within an established tradition. Through the Keyhole is a singer/songwriter album through and through.
“Remember My Name”, the album opener, is open-ended enough that you can have fun wondering what the song is about for Cottrill. Strong harmonica playing complements his assertive acoustic guitar work and Cottrill keeps the energy level high from the outset with no noticeable lull. One of his talents as a songwriter with The Grey Agents comes through here as well – he writes great choruses and “Remember My Name” arguably boasts one of the best such moments on Through the Keyhole.
A smattering of strings works its way into the album with its second song “Erica”. It’s a song he composed for his daughter, earnest and full of obvious love, but nonetheless he avoids any of the bathos and melodramatic stiffness composers often encounter when writing about subjects like this. One wishes the guitar arrangement unfolded a little smoother, perhaps, but the song is nonetheless very affecting. “Lace”, written when Cottrill was 17, has a deliberate and forceful pace thanks to the guitar playing and illustrates his talents at an early age for “scene setting”. The harmonica playing counterpoints the vocals and guitar work quite nicely.
“The Murder Farm” is a chilling entry unlike anything else on Through the Keyhole. It’s a song reporting the facts of multiple murder with chilling and voluminous detail, but it gains much as well from the obvious rage and incomprehension fueling Cottrill’s point of view. The uptempo playing mitigates some of the horror contained in the lyric, but this is a challenging listen. It’s well worthwhile however. The end of the world imagery driving “When the Fire Comes” gives a Biblical edge to what is otherwise a song about the difficult times we live in, but it doesn’t take on a preachy or hectoring air at any point.
“Uncertain Keyhole Jangle” is a bit of an obtuse title for what is, essentially, a narrative song with a strong Dylan influence underlining the track. Much like he does for the opener “Remember My Name”, Cottrill lays the song down at a furious clip while still keeping it well under control. The words are rife with potent imagery Cottrill never belabors and there are enough musical turns built into the song to keep it interesting for listeners.
The finale “Sammie Lee” is another narrative song of sorts as Cottrill seems to be reaching for a chronicle of his parents’ life together. The plainspoken poetry of the song will win you over, but Cottrill marries it with a super musical arrangement that is driven by dynamics rather than plunging straight ahead with pressing chord work. It’s easily the album’s longest song, as well, clocking in at nearly eight minutes, but it never tries listener’s patience. Brian Cottrill’s work with The Grey Agents long ago served notice of his songwriting skills, but Through the Keyhole gives us a different take on those talents that I am thankful to have heard.