by Michael Alan Goldberg

Damien Jurado

w/Rocky Votolato, Adam Voith (reading)

Thurs June 5, Crocodile, $8, 18+ w/ID.

When they're weary or wary of baring their most painful innards for the whole world to hear, a lot of singer-songwriters turn to the headlines of their local rag for inspiration. Damien Jurado, however, prefers to hone in on a section normally buried near the back.

"I read the obituaries all the time," he chuckles. "I'm fascinated by how life is so short. Here's this person who lived this life, and as I read it I get images in my head--their graduation, their first child, where they lived. I picture all that stuff. It's such an open door and it tends to be a good help to my songwriting."

That might seem a bit morbid to some, but Jurado isn't as exclusively death-obsessed as, say, Winona Ryder in Beetlejuice.

"I'm fascinated by birth, too--I watched my own son being born. It's just really interesting to see the whole checkin' in and checkin' out of life's motel."

If you've heard any of Jurado's six astoundingly good albums, you already know that he revels in the yin and yang of the human condition, eagerly seating darkness and death next to optimism and joy at his musical table. The 30-year-old Seattle native masterfully populates his songs with flawed characters in vexing situations, and then, through simple but richly evocative lyrics and honest, intimate vocals, shows how they strive for escape or betterment, give in to the overwhelming despair, or find the faintest flicker of salvation in their gloomiest hour.

On his latest treasure, Where Shall You Take Me?, Jurado's affinity for minimal wordsmithing and ambiguous resolutions belies the weighty, multilayered connotations in each of the album's 10 stories. "Amateur Night" spins the creepy tale of a homicidal nudie photographer who shrugs off his wicked bloodlust as merely a "bad habit." The 19-year-old beauty of "Abilene" is the object of an older man's obsessive desire, and the cryptic ending suggests both a blissful and a tragic end to their illicit romance. And the devastating, show-stopping "Intoxicated Hands," sung from a woman's perspective, turns assumed gender roles upside down as it's she who gets her man drunk, takes advantage of him, then implores him to leave the next morning. Still, these aren't morality tales--Jurado doesn't push his own belief systems or pass harsh judgments on his creations. Instead, he's like a bystander taking succinct-yet-incisive notes and being left to wonder, like the rest of us, about each character's ultimate fate.

"They're sort of like episodes of Quantum Leap," Jurado quips. "I'm kind of this person that goes in and out of lives and gives you snippets of this and that."

Musically, the album's sparse and spectral traditional-folk bent brings a quiet, timeless power to already formidable songs. For the most part, gentle acoustic guitars, lilting piano melodies, and muted percussion mingle modestly as if it's late at night and there's a baby sleeping in the next room. That restrained quality is soothing on such easygoing tunes as "Matinee" and "Window," yet amplifies the tension of the darker tracks to make them that much more vivid.

Overall, this is exceptionally riveting stuff, and when you combine that with Jurado's humble and affable personality, it's no wonder fans rarely hesitate to tell him how deeply his music has affected them.

"Some of the e-mails I get are really heavy and intense," he says. "I have to remember that I'm now in this position where other musicians were for me years ago, where I could put on a Neil Young record and it meant so much to me. Now that I'm on the other side of the fence, I dunno... when it first started happening it was a bit much.

"A lot of the people who wrote me I still keep in contact with," Jurado continues. "It's weird though, like, not that I'm a therapist or anything, but am I breaking some sort of rule in the relationship between a songwriter and his audience? I've been trying so hard these days to keep a wall between my personal life and my art, and I'm finding the two are colliding head-on. But it's been easier to deal with some of the stuff I've gone through in my life because of the songs I've written, so I guess my hope would just be that the people listening to them feel the same thing."