(PENURY POP RECORDS; 2014)
I remember when I first heard Rachel Taylor Brown, a Portland singer/songwriter, about seven years ago. I was delighted to discover that she seemed to be a genuine weirdo, not following any kind of formula or expectations, but really sounding committed to her eccentric, piano-laden art songs and darkly comical worldview. Sometimes it’s harder for a woman to pull that off than a man, at least in the US. The music marketplace here still puts unfair expectations on female artists. The fact that Brown’s latest album FALIMY is not available on Amazon, and is in fact, a Bandcamp offering, may have some implications. Whatever. Brown is still doing her unconventional thing, and it kind of whacks you around as a listener. Opening track “Let’s Have A,” the title itself an open-ended joke, begins as a jaunty little pop song, with Brown declaring with feminine sweetness that “The world is so frightening, there’s never enough/The world is so frightening for me and my love.” But then the apparent wistfulness is demolished when a loud, aggressive chorus commences: “Let’s make a family…let’s make a baby,” the kind of routine decision that causes more and more problems these days for many. It’s possible, I suppose, that Brown is being sincere, but I think she’s being bitterly sarcastic, and that makes this tune really funny, although Brown repeats the chorus with an increasingly repetitive shrillness that eventually wears thin. Still funny, though, in its dashing of expectations. Elsewhere, you get the spritely rocker “Mount Athos,” which uses its jingly keyboards to nice effect but chooses to serve up the utterly timely theme of serious problems with religious conviction these days. “Trying to get to heaven, but there’s a woman in the way/There’s a woman in the way/Of men on their way” is a lyric I dug immensely, and will likely find myself quoting to friends. And I love how the song just ENDS, sharply, as though there’s an implicit acknowledgment that you can never get to the end of this issue; it divides and leaves people hanging all the time.
In “Little Fucker,” a real attention getter, Brown sings “Little fucker/You go around fucking people over/Little fucker/You’re on the town fucking people over/You got a lot to go around.” This is more than a little reminiscent of Liz Phair’s brash sentiments on the groundbreaking EXILE IN GUYVILLE and arguably just as musically compelling, but Brown won’t get that sort of attention, not in this day and age. She exercises a lot of restraint here; this is essentially a plaintive piano ballad, as are tracks like “Robin,” “Trade” and the emotive “Men in War.” That one is a song that does about what you think it should do lyrically. Brown is rarely all that sentimental; she’s a bit too original for standard tear-jerking, but this song serves it up and then, ends suddenly again, which is nice. “Me Hurting You” is a showier, more typical Brown composition, featuring somewhat dissonant descending piano chords while an insistent slashing guitar chord helps steer a path through a clearly angsty piece. Brown is good at creating musical stress to accompany lyrics that deal with stress themselves. “Litany of the Family” is my favorite, though, a wickedly detached narrative serving up line after line about an apparently ideal family’s behavior when out together, with only Brown’s impersonal delivery and a single sparse tonal undercurrent providing sonic direction. It’s very much the kind of thing Laurie Anderson was once known for. “Family taking a walk outside… Attractive family of four…. Family at the lake… Family looking at the water…. Happy family…. Mother playing with her baby… Couple with their daughter…. Father holding son…. New mother kissing baby’s forehead… Closeup of a beautiful happy family together…” You get the idea. As the wordiness of the song increases halfway through, the effect is both comical and kind of authentically ghastly, and it sure makes you think about this whole “family unit” thing that we so treasure in modern society. The track is actually one of the most compelling things I’ve heard in a while, a real showstopper.
FALIMY is a spartan affair overall; a couple of the songs are very slight, and Brown has a truly curious knack for NOT mincing words or varying the arrangements much. “All I need is one brave soul” is about the only lyric in the last song, and there’s a curiously long pause after that which, if you keep listening, ends with Brown merely saying “thanks” quietly. It’s personal, it’s disarming and it’s unexpected. Which kind of sums up this Oregonian’s aesthetic in a way. She is one to watch, and if not the most beautifully voiced or sophisticated gal making music out there, she sure has ideas, and the panache to deliver them with, confidently. A few moments on this record will definitely stay with me, and I’ll look forward to Brown’s future efforts.