Last year, Pieta Brown debuted on Red House Records with a pleasing E.P. entitled Shimmer. Produced by Don Was, the seven-track release followed Brown’s well-received albums Pieta Brown (2002), In the Cool (2005), and Remember the Sun (2007), while also serving as a taster for her first full-length offering for Red House. One and All was co-produced by Brown and long-time collaborator Bo Ramsey, and expands on the pared-down sound of Shimmer in subtle ways. The new album adds Calexico’s Joey Burns on cello and accordion, J.T. Bates on drums, and Majors Junction’s Brian Wilkie on pedal steel to accompany Brown’s band.
However, the textures that the contributors add to the record are restrained and understated, with the focus very much remaining on Brown’s distinctive, languorous vocals. One and All certainly doesn’t fall into the trap of over-production; if anything, the album initially feels a little slight and insubstantial. Repeated listens, though, reveal One and All to be another accomplished release from Brown, one that further develops and refines her brand of thoughtful, subtly ambient Americana.
The elegant opening track “Wishes Falling through the Rain” establishes the measured mood, settling in to a leisurely groove as Brown’s lyrics muse on transience and change: “Sometimes a friend is not a friend / Sometimes the end is just the end / Sometimes time starts again”. “Other Way Around” borrows its opening lyric from Lucinda Williams’ “If Wishes Were Horses”, and its twangy guitar motif is reminiscent of West-era Williams, too. But a compelling, dreamy vocal from Brown and some of the album’s most effective lyrics quickly give the song a distinctive identity.
The spare, romantic “Out of the Blue” and the evocative, reverent “Prayer of Roses” both sustain a graceful and timeless ambience, while “El Guero”—the only track here to have also been featured on Shimmer—picks up the pace and adds urgency to the bare-bones E.P. version. A tribute to musical heroes Tom Petty and J.J. Cale, “Faller” is lovely in its languidness, and the subtle tempo changes on “Flowers in the Kingdom” are beautifully achieved.
Lyrically, as usual, Brown tends to build her songs out of impressionistic details and observations, with the tracks never cohering into conventional narratives. This can be a cause of both delight and frustration. Her lyrics certainly leave the listener plenty of interpretive space, but they can occasionally seem like unfinished sketches, as if the songs were still on their way to being fully developed. That’s true of the last few tracks here, which drift by a little nebulously, despite some beguiling elements, particularly Wilkie’s weepy pedal steel on “Never Did Belong”. Nonetheless, the best songs on One and All are clearly built to last, and Brown delivers them with a style and a sensuality that’s all her own.