Among the most consistently rewarding singer-songwriters of the past three decades, Iowa’s Greg Brown has quietly become a living legend in the folk music world. Founder of the iconic “Red House” folk label in the early 1980s, and former musical director for Garrison Keelor’s “A Prairie Home Companion” radio show, Brown has served as a kind of beacon to aspiring folkies for several decades. A distinctive, idiosyncratic lyricist with an unmistakable baritone growl of a voice, he is probably not to everyone’s taste. But to those who are drawn to his earthbound wisdom, his careful critiques of postmodern society (including the process he refers to as the “blandification of our whole situation”), and his gorgeous melodies, he stands atop the pile.
Especially on his astounding run of top-shelf records in the 1990s – such as desert-island qualifiers like Further In and The Poet Game – many of Brown’s songs have felt like immediate standards, suddenly familiar and timeless on first listen. Indeed, on the indispensable 2003 release, Going Driftless: An Artists’ Tribute to Greg Brown, some of his best material was covered to powerful effect by some of the leading names in the genre. On that record, a dreamy list of female singer-songwriters including Ani DiFranco, Lucinda Williams, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Gillian Welch, Eliza Gilkyson, and Shawn Colvin all came to worship at his altar. Greg Brown has clearly exerted a powerful influence.
But since 2000, he has slipped a bit from this commanding perch, releasing records that have sometimes felt unfinished, under-baked, or inessential. Unfortunately, the trend continues on Freak Flag, a disappointing set of sleepy songwriting featuring even sleepier production values. Though there are inevitable moments of shiny genius – there can be no doubt that at his best Greg Brown is among the finest writers and performers of his generation – there are far more moments too easily forgotten.
Part of the reason for this may lie in the curious backstory for the album. Brown had actually written and recorded a whole record’s worth of material last year, his first time suing digital technology like Pro Tools. Wrapping up amid a growing thunderstorm which had come shaking at the walls of the studio, Brown recalls walking outside to check out the coming weather. Suddenly, a bolt of lightning hit the building. Inside, the album was wiped away in a second as millions of volts surged through the studio computers. “FFFFFFFFT!” was how Brown put it when telling this story to an audience in Toronto earlier this year. Smiling, shrugging, he explained that maybe this was just how it was supposed to be. Amazingly, despite all the work he had put into it, he just walked away from the album. Freak Flag, it is said, contains none of the songs which had been part of that now forever lost record.
But, in the months since losing that material and the tracking of this document, Brown may have rushed the new stuff into being. Apart from the clever and welcome title track, with its post-1960s call to refuse hegemony of money and corporatism, and a rehashing of an old chestnut “Flat Stuff” (previously available in a live version from the early 1980s), the only other real standout number here is a cover of Brown’s wife Iris DeMent’s masterpiece “Let the Mystery Be”. In other words, of the best three songs here, one is new, one is 30 years old, and one is a cover. Moreover, many of the other songs rely on simple blues structures that are simply too well worn to feel fresh. Lyrics and melody follow suit – it must be said that the casual mood of the record skews toward amateurism rather than easy confidence. Brown, surrounded by Bo Ramsey’s session musicians, sounds like a guy ill at ease with his backing band. The drums rush (or Brown sags); the lead guitar picks too-familiar lines; the vocals strain to find the right note as though the song needed a key adjustment. In the end, this is a merely OK album from a musician from whom we have come to expect (or, really, long for) much more. You’ll never catch me telling anyone not to buy a Greg Brown record, but if you have to start somewhere, his 24th record might not be the place.