Brian Cottrill’s Through the Keyhole gets his first solo release off to a straight-forward start with the souped up pace of “Remember My Name”, but gains extra impetus from how Cottrill records the guitar and the aggressive manner he attacks his strings. It has the sort of build that sticks in listener’s memories thanks to how it escalates to its chorus. That moment is a great payoff for the track and rates as the best chorus included on Through the Keyhole. He varies the pace with the third song “All I’ve Got Is You” and writes an idiosyncratic lyric about the time-honored subject of a relationship gone bad. The narrator’s obvious desperation, nonetheless communicated in an understated way, is an unexpected and effective side of the songwriting.
“The Murder Farm” is, hands down, darker than any other song included on Through the Keyhole. It chronicles in wrenching specificity about the brutal murder of a family, including the children, and makes little effort towards sweetening the listening experience. The angry thrust of the guitar playing and vocals redeems the dreary subject matter in a significant way thanks to the energy it generates, but makes for difficult hearing. The next song “Lost and Forgotten” is a very different matter.
West Virginia native Cottrill shows the singular talent for writing about adult themes without ever lapsing into melodrama or cliché. This is rarer than you perhaps like to believe. The balanced emotional tone of this slow musical and lyrical unfolding never strains credibility and sounds like a composition that Cottrill “lived with” quite a while before attempting to write it down. He shows with “When the Fire Comes” that he can toss in enough flash into these acoustic arrangements to give them needed variation rather than plowing straight ahead with a brain deadening strum.
“Uncertain Keyhole Jangle” is placed near the album’s end, but has the potential to be one of the most enduring tracks Cottrill added to this release. He writes vivid cinematic narratives for entire songs and sections in others and this song is one of the best examples on the release of his technique working at full capacity. The seven minute plus “Sammie Lee” is another track that stands as one of the most fully realized of Cottrill’s artistic ambitions. The arrangement has plenty of room to breathe and makes dramatic use of silence that brings extra edge to its emotional sharpness.
The aforementioned track is the “proper” ending for Through the Keyhole, but the release boasts a bonus track with a full band entitled “Gates of Venus”. It is natural the performance has a different impact than the acoustic tracks, but Cottrill sings with a buoyant spring in his voice. It might make a better ending for some listeners than the comparatively more “serious” “Sammie Lee”.
Brian Cottrill has immense musical and songwriting talents, but he impresses most because he writes accessible material. Through the Keyhole more than does respect to professed influences like Bob Dylan and others without ever aping his artistic heroes. The ten songs on this album, instead, are stamped with personality, skills, and experiences all their own.