Like Richard Shindell and Dar Williams, Greg Brown is one of those intelligent, literate American singer-songwriters whose sterling work seems destined to remain somewhat under-appreciated by the wider listening public. Despite consistently strong reviews, a devoted following, and the prestigious Joan Baez Seal of Approval (Baez covered two of Brown’s songs on her 2003 album Dark Chords on a Big Guitar, and borrowed a Brown lyric for the record’s title), each of these excellent artists still remains less well-known than they deserve to be, particularly outside of the States.
The release of Dream City: Essential Recordings Vol 2, 1997-2006 reveals just how much of a shame this is in Brown’s case. This two-CD collection is a follow-up to the Iowa native’s 2003 compilation If I Had Known: Essential Recordings, 1980-1996 and collates material from Brown’s recent Red House and Trailer releases, alongside a couple of previously unreleased tracks and live recordings. A perfect place to start for Brown novices, Dream City also offers a few treats to delight long-standing fans.
The 16 well-chosen and thoughtfully-sequenced selections on the first disc do justice to the full range of Brown’s musical personality. Here you’ll find driving rockers (“Dream City”, from 2000’s Covenant, which boasts particularly fine guitar work from Brown’s regular collaborator Bo Ramsey), heartfelt, un-cringeworthy romantic ballads (“Vivid”, from 1997’s Slant 6 Mind), cutting social commentary (“Your Town Now”, from 2000’s Over and Under), Biblical blues (“Samson”, from 2004’s Honey in the Lion’s Head), rootsy pastorals (“Summer Evening”, from Over and Under), and evocative character sketches (“Mattie Price”, also from Over and Under).
The track I have the hardest time getting by, though, is “Rexroth’s Daughter”. For me, it’s Brown’s masterpiece, a beautifully crafted song of longing in which the title character is the endlessly elusive object of the narrator’s fruitless but somehow sustaining quest. The imagery is Dylanesque, to be sure, but the song has a warmth and directness and beauty that is all Brown’s own. There’s an enviable attention to place and to detail throughout his work, and Brown’s baritone burr is distinctive and inviting, the ideal instrument for the mix of wry humor (“there’s gonna be a lot of roadkill on the information highway”, “Evening Call” tells us), grit, and tenderness that characterizes his songwriting.
The second disc features three previously unreleased collaborations with Brown’s label-mate Peter Ostroushko: an alternate cut of “Lull It By” that bests the album version thanks to the addition of Ostroushko’s fiddle-work; the lovely, infectious “Verona Road”; and—unfortunately—the interminable “Gallery”. Easily the weakest song here, it’s a tedious litany of lovers in which Brown’s sharp lyrical skills mostly seem to desert him. The final track compensates, though. The ten-minute (!) improvised spoken-word live cut “Christmas Song” (recorded in Denver in 2006) adapts the traditional Christmas story with a winning mixture of wryness and reverence (“three dudes showed up”), turning the narrative of Jesus’s birth into an undogmatic humanist gospel. It’s funny, moving, quintessentially Brown, and a highlight of a superb collection.