A jewel is a stone

On the title track of songwriter Brian Lillie’s remarkable third album, a town gathers to bid farewell to the departing fire chief. Among the crowd is the local mortician – an odd woman who "remembers the faces but buries the names" – and the town sheriff, who’s drunk. They all wish the exiting firefighter luck, then add sincerely: "Wherever you’re going, hope they’ve got buildings to burn."

It’s a great hook, and a rare theme for a folk record: One person’s tragedy can be someone else’s livelihood. Or put another way, even firemen deserve steady work.

Good Luck Fire Chief – the song and the album – is a study of these seeming contradictions in the things we value most. On "The Sound of Pretense Dropping," a bride’s mother laments over the happy couple’s decision to live together before marriage. "Inside the Sleeve" celebrates music and condemns the business that creates it. And the jaunty "Careful Lovers" glorifies passion, while inviting blind love to "come and tear us apart."

Lillie has assembled an impressive cast to play out this conflict, including a veritable chorus line of Ann Arbor’s finest players. Bluegrass savant K.C. Groves offers harmonies. Alt-country rocker Jim Roll lends his characteristic growl. And Lillie’s own band – the Squirrel Mountain Orchestra – strikes a formidable pose, with their best playing in years.

But if hardship is the songwriter’s stock in trade, perhaps Lillie is confessing something that lesser tunesmiths would rather we didn’t know. Life’s uneasy balance keeps him in business too. And that’s OK. As Billy Bragg once said, you just have to take the crunchy with the smooth.

Wrapping his words in reassuring Midwestern tones, Brian Lillie reminds us that happiness is calamity’s best friend.

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