Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
Album number eight is a slight departure for Iowa-based singer-songwriter Pieta Brown. During the course of seven previous releases and an EP, she has established an idiosyncratic profile with hushed, sometimes even whispered, vocals over jazz and blues-inflected Americana. Brown’s tunes don’t easily slot into folk, yet they bask in a similar low-key approach she shares with her iconic dad Greg Brown. But for the first time since 2002’s debut, her longtime cohort Bo Ramsey is MIA.
Ramsey’s snakelike guitar lines and laid-back production helped define Brown’s style. But even in his absence, her gauzy, amorphous music married to similarly vague lyrics is instantly recognizable. The muted tropicalia of the opening “Ask for More,” with its brushed drums and muted piano, slowly unfurls. It, like many of the rest of these subtle songs, is shaded in sonic hues of brown and tan. There are hints of Dylan in Brown’s delivery, certainly not in the resonance of her voice but with the inflection and timing of her delivery. It’s particularly dominant in the dreamy “Bring Me” as she snuggles over the warmth of wistful reverbed guitar.
Brown muses on the complexities of a relationship in the title track as she sings, “And in spite of all my debts/ I’m placing all my bets/ No I don’t care/ how far we get/ on the freeway.” There’s a slow-burn Dire Straits feel to “The Hard Way,” not least of which is due to Mark Knopfler’s presence. Here, Brown examines what seems to be a broken relationship with “I guess we had to learn the hard way … To leave, to go, to stay” with Knopfler’s rhythm guitar bolstering her simmering intensity. The atmospheric bluesy lope of “Before We Break” exudes an ominous air as Brown sings “Inside the house … the house you schemed/ From a childhood dream/ To make shelter and come clean.”
The production is reserved, pushing the singer’s understated vocal up front where it belongs. Repeated plays help define the instrumental intricacies played by a backing band live in the studio who hadn’t rehearsed the tunes before the session. Brown is compelling in her honesty as she reveals her innermost thoughts, seemingly unaware of the tapes running. Freewayis best heard in one sitting without distraction, since the music and lyrics blend together forming a seamless, even hypnotic, whole that resembles little else.