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Casually crafty

The Brothers Comatose make it all look easy



You might think you've heard enough string bands with banjos and mandolins to last at least one lifetime. But the Brothers Comatose, a five-piece string band founded by brothers Ben and Alex Morrison, are likely to soften your resolve, much like that last shot of alcohol right before closing time.

All it really takes is one listen to the band's sophomore album, Respect the Van, and standout moments like the bright dawning warmth of "Morning Time," their folk-pop duet with fellow San Franciscan Nicki Bluhm.

Then there's the bustling bluegrass of "Pie for Breakfast," which cleverly mixes melancholia and carefree abandon. "I'm having pie for breakfast, the snow is comin' down," sings Ben, "staring out the window in a cold and distant town."

Like many of the tracks, it's characterized by beautiful, very-close harmonies, the kind of touch that helps them stand out from their peers.

"That was a weird one, it's not your straightforward one-four-five chordal harmonies," says Ben of the vocal parts, which he and his brother came up with on the fly while sitting around the living room. "If you take the approach of, 'Let's be really musical about this' and write out the harmonies, it sounds like something you've heard a bunch of times before. It's more fun to play around with it and come up with some different stuff that makes it pop a little more."

Still, there's a careful craftsmanship that underlies the music's casual feel. "We don't really jam a lot," admits Morrison. "We'll throw in some solos here or there, but I really like that poppy rock song-structure, kind of straight to the point. We love melodies and we love songs."

Lyrically, their subject matter ranges from odes to their vehicle ("The Van Song") to happily insouciant gypsy iconoclasts ("The Ballad of Tommy Decker, the Prince of Haight Street"). But not so much about girlfriends.

"Yeah, we don't often write love songs," says Morrison. "It's hard to write a good love song. A lot of it has been done before. It can be done, but I feel like it has to have an angle to make it good."

Growing up, the Morrison brothers were deeply influenced by their mother who was a folk singer and would host hootenannies at their house. That's where Alex discovered the banjo, after which Ben began performing with him on acoustic guitar. They put together the band's first incarnation in 2008 and are now hard at work on their third album.

"We did most of the tracking in this odd, beautiful castle-like studio above Stinson Beach overlooking the ocean. It was amazing," says Morrison, who sees the album moving a little more in the direction of early influences like the folk-punk Devil Makes Three. "It's not like I'm playing electric guitar or we've got a drum kit, but it definitely feels a little more rocking."

Morrison is also pleased with the band's slow-but-steady organic growth. "This is something I've always wanted to do since I was a kid," he says. "To make it happen in reality is really nice. Then again I can't imagine not doing this, even if things were going terribly.

"Plus," he adds, "I have developed no other life skills besides playing music."

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