Rachel Taylor Brown | Half Hours With the Lower Creatures (Cutthroat Pop)

cd_rachel-taylor-brown.jpgI was spellbound by the new album by Rachel Taylor Brown, a Portland, Ore., singer/songwriter who’s a true original.







I listen to lots of music by female artists, always seeking the product of an aesthetic different from that of typical adrenaline-pumped rocker boys. But to be honest, a lot of women singers in the United States play it way too safe creatively. You get the folksy/rootsy gals who sing sincere ballads and strum their acoustic guitars very prettily, or you get the rockin’ chicks and R&B queens who belt it out and show they got sass/soul, and complete control. What you don’t hear a lot of in America is women wandering off the beaten path, doing things musically that are truly daring and adventurous.

So I was spellbound by the new album by Rachel Taylor Brown, a Portland, Ore., singer/songwriter who’s a true original. The disc is called Half Hours With the Lower Creatures, and in the press release, it’s referred to as "creep pop." We learn that Brown suffered a nervous breakdown that made her a hermit for about eight years; during that time, she did a lot of thinking about the human condition. Her preoccupation with "injustice and the underdog" and "that human desire for control" apparently fueled many of the angst-ridden songs on this record.

Brown’s not a typical singer/songwriter on any level. These songs are eccentric, often fractured bits of verse punctuated by strange sounds and haunting background vocals. Brown’s voice is a tad shy but focused, understating her big themes (religious tyranny, heartbreak, lives out of balance) in a remarkably effective way, especially when paired with her elegant piano playing. Everything here is unpredictable, which is truly refreshing. "Passion" is one of several songs to address the dysfunctions brought on by religion; it’s memorably unnerving to hear a pretty tune based around lyrics like these: "They’re spilling the fake blood of Christ/ On the deaf and dumb/ If the shock don’t bring them to kingdom come, the shame will."

The very title of "b.s. (beautiful saviour)" makes a statement, while Brown’s voice and piano are perfect tools for wringing every bit of angst out of the minimal lyrics ("Close your eyes, the night is softly sleeping/ All the bombs are safe in daddy’s keeping"). A mood of unbearable poignancy fills "Another dead soldier in Fallujah (waste)," which needs only a few short verses about a parent still speaking of their child in the present tense during the holiday season ("He’s a good kid, you say") — and the paltry blurb that another war death merited in the newspaper — to make its unforgettable point.

The sparse piano is clearly Taylor’s heart crying out in empathy. And on "This is a song (sorry)," Taylor seems to turn the emotional microscope on herself, revealing somewhat elliptically that a past heartbreak still hurts. She plays a sequence of three piano tones over and over, with hazy atmospherics adding to the mood of inexpressible sorrow. "This is a song for someone I love I kicked in the gut I punched in the eye," Taylor sings, with the lyrics printed out in just that run-on fashion on the insert.

To be haunted by the past, or even the present, is a reality for some that Taylor uniquely captures the mood of here, through many of the songs and even a couple of surprising instrumentals. Jeff Stuart Saltzman is Taylor’s musical compadre, playing numerous instruments and doing the production/mixing work. But this is Taylor’s vision, rendered with intimacy, clarity and a good dollop of uncommon imagination. Half Hours is truly a fascinating record, probably the most original and provocative song cycle released by a woman in the U.S. so far this year. B+ | Kevin Renick

RIYL: Tori Amos, Kate Bush, Frida Hyvonen

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