Like a lot of heavy-hearted guitar strummers, Blake Thomas has a jones for the late Townes Van Zandt and his sweet, fatalistic brooding. But unlike a lot of the amateurs who probe Van Zandt's wounds, Thomas makes plain in every other line that he's done his own share of losing, too. That's not a prerequisite for piquant, believable country and country folk, but lord knows it helps get you started. To put it another way, when Thomas exhales his misery through a cutting couplet like "I'm just hopin' that your daughter is pretty and dumb/There's no room in this world for the thoughtful ones," you understand immediately that he's not putting on an act.
Whether that's a good thing or a bad one depends on your outlook. If you're one of those folks who dream of sunshine and rainbows during the grayest days of winter, agonizing soul bleat like "Up in Flames" and the lachrymose title track won't do much to polish up your world. But if the bottle's been a friend, and you've known the kind of heartache that diminishes with time but never quite goes away, Thomas is the twangy poète maudit you've been looking for. (Plus, he's not always down in the dumps. When he goes honky-tonkin' on the sardonic Texas-style two-stepper "I Don't Want Your Heart, I Want Your Liver," he's the life of the barroom.)
Having seen the spent, skeletal Van Zandt perform near the end of his run, I can't imagine anyone really wanting to emulate his life. But his music? That's another story. He was a singer-songwriter, but he was more than that. He was the sort of troubadour who could bring a lump to your throat just by inclining his long, gaunt face and moaning a word or two in tune. Thomas hasn't mastered that ability to transmit the essence of his personal pain just yet, and maybe he never will. But that doesn't diminish the quality of the artfully produced Flatlands, which is a must for country and folk fans who don't always walk on the sunny side of the street.