Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
The words “ethereal” and “banjo” aren’t often used in the same sentence. The dichotomy of those two almost seems like an oxymoron. But on this, Pieta Brown’s sixth release, banjo becomes a key element of the stripped down to almost nothing, atmospheric sound. Brown, the daughter of veteran folk singer Greg Brown (who guests on one track here), has always favored a less-is-more style and seems to have consciously pared the instrumentation back to wispy drums, murmuring banjo, softly strummed guitar and her distinctive, heavy-lidded caramel and cream vocals.
Recorded in four days with seemingly few overdubs at Justin Vernon’s (Bon Iver) Wisconsin studios, these 14 tracks flow seamlessly together, tied by not only Brown’s hypnotic singing, but husband/guitarist/co-producer Bo Ramsey’s sinuous, heavily reverbed, ever-present guitar leads. They underpin and propel these understated performances with subtle grace. The album’s name is borrowed from the title of a book of photographs and essays about “the Beats” and Brown explains how she shares a similar affiliation with these 60s writers and poets whose view of art was “unelitist, anti-hierarchical and egalitarian.” That may be a handful to absorb but the album that stems from those concepts is a lovely, thought provoking and dream enhancing experience.
It is front loaded with its most catchy material, including “Do You Know?” a pop leaning ditty assisted by a surprise appearance from Amos Lee whose grainy vocals trade verses with Brown’s more fluid style yielding the album’s most accessible and arguably finest moment. The rest of the disc stays on lower boil with Brown’s succulent, sexy voice slurring what seem to be stream of consciousness words like another instrument, as her subtly plucked banjo brings earthly delights to this garden of low-key pleasures.
At 51 minutes, an argument could be made that paring a few tunes off the set list might have made this a stronger, less similar sounding listening experience. Still, Pieta Brown is a major talent whose songs reveal themselves with unhurried creativity. Her artistry combines folk, country and dusky swamp in a graceful, supple and elegant genre of their own.