Album Review: Trap Door by Bruce Hughes (Or, Baking the Perfect Record)

Last week, I had lunch with Austin Musician and Interesting Human, Bruce Hughes. I told him how much I enjoyed his last record, Trap Door. I told him how surprised I was by it, and that it had a lot going on underneath the surface. At the time, I thought that made sense, but I got myself in trouble with that last bit because he asked me what I meant by it…and I didn’t have a very good answer. So I’ve thought about it some more. And this is what I’ve come up with.
The idea of “less is more” has come up a lot lately. I first wrote about it back in December, in regards to baking a cheesecake.  The thought was that the fewer ingredients you use, the more important it is to get those ingredients just right because that’s all there is; you’re not covering things up with unnecessary flavors. The quality of the ingredients, the quantities, and the timing of combining them all together are crucial. As I wrote last year, “when a few ingredients are put together with care and love and precision, great things can happen.”
And that is also what I would say about Trap Door.

Trap Door is Bruce’s third solo record. Each one has its own distinct personality, and this one is the most pared-down, unassuming offering of the three. His first record, Bluebird, has some really great music on it, including “Stax,” “Anywhere But Memphis” and my favorite, “Ten.” There also seem to be some songs about a relationship gone bad. It’s as if he wrote some of the record to work a few things out for himself – and it must have worked, because the second album, Shorty, is much more – how can I put this – self-actualized. There are beautiful love songs (“English Rose”), sexy love songs (“Baby’s Bag”), absolutely weird-ass, ironic songs (“Otherside” makes me laugh, EVERY SINGLE time I hear it) and totally brilliant songs – the first time I really listened to “Happy to Help,” I knew I had to meet this person. There are lots of instruments and sounds and noises and layers on Shorty. It’s work, but the payoff is big.
So this third record… the first time I listened to it I thought, where is the BruceHughesFunk that I’m expecting? It sounded totally different than his other records, and I didn’t really know what to think. Maybe people living in Austin who can see Bruce perform regularly weren’t as surprised. But for someone who lives too far away to see him play and can only live vicariously through other people’s shakily-shot YouTube videos, it was a real surprise. I actually put it aside for a bit. Eventually I went back and listened to it again, this time with no expectations. And I was kind of blown away.
Trap Door is a fairly short record – 10 songs that zip by and leave you wanting more. So then you just have to go back and start from the beginning again. The album is very sparse – an acoustic guitar, maybe a smattering of electric guitar, a little percussion and a teeny tiny bit of keyboards… not a lot of ingredients. Add into the mix a clear, strong voice and the recipe seems promising…
Bruce is a master lyricist. Plus, he knows just what a girl wants to hear, and how she wants to hear it. The singing is so good, that it almost pisses me off in places. Goddamn that Bruce!
There are songs on the record that are straightforward and good and happy and sexy – such as the opener “Days Are Beautiful,” “Baby I Do,” “Fearless Love,” and “I Get High” (I have never found hair care so enticing as when someone sings to me that they want to wash, rinse and repeat me every day). There are also some snarky jabs – a line from “Cheaper” informs me that “many fragile flowers have met their demise on my living room floor.” Is that so! A few songs paint very detailed pictures – interestingly, from a woman’s perspective (“Tortilla Factory”).
There are two songs in particular that stand out to me. The first is “Girl Who Reads.” This is probably the simplest song on the record – one guitar and voice. Perfect accompaniment for such lovely lyrics. Bruce tends to write very self-actualized songs, emitting confidence, positive energy, and just the right amount of masculine umph. “Girl Who Reads” is a departure from this – allowing the listener to catch a glimpse of someone who might possibly be more vulnerable. A welcomed surprise. I just have one minor personal disappointment with the lyrics: in the song, Bruce laments the lack of a “girl who reads” in his life, proclaiming that “they’re all storytellers with vocabularies…” I understand this, in that there’s a lot of noise out there and everyone loves to listen to themselves talk. I get it, I do. But, well, there are SOME good storytellers out there… just saying…
The very last song, “Quiet,” was also a big surprise. It’s a story, again from a woman’s perspective. I wonder who it is about – a distant relative maybe? It’s the story of a woman who travels across the ocean by ship from “the old country” to meet her intended, sight unseen. It’s thoughtful, has a really haunting melody, and the vocals at the end of the song give me chills. And then the record is… over. More, more!

So when I said that the record had a lot going on underneath the surface, I guess what I meant was that at first I simply looked at the list of ingredients and thought, this is it? But upon further exploration, I could hear how everything comes together to make something so rich and layered and complex. Bruce Hughes has baked the perfect cheesecake with this record. The ingredients are few, but of very high quality, and used in just the right combination. Buy yourself a copy and enjoy the simplicity of a well-crafted record.
I can’t wait to hear what comes next. It may be a totally different recipe, but I know it’ll be tasty nonetheless.