Torn Between Bob and Lucinda
The press release that accompanies Pieta Brown’s In the Cool claims that her voice is “altogether her own, without artifice or gimmick”. It then suggests comparisons with Chrissie Hynde and PJ Harvey, but concludes nonetheless that “Brown doesn’t sound like anyone else”.
The truth is that while Pieta Brown is actually the eldest daughter of singer-songwriter Greg, she sounds exactly like the secret lovechild of the young Bob Dylan (circa Bringing It All Back Home) and mid-period Lucinda Williams. Factor in Brown’s musical collaborator, the veteran guitarist Bo Ramsay—best known in my house for his landmark work with Ms. Williams—and it’s hard to resist the temptation to compare Pieta Brown with the greatest of the best. Unfortunately and inevitably, In the Cool doesn’t quite live up to the billing her singing suggests.
At first hearing, Brown’s vocals actually count against her. Listening, say, to “Fourth of July”, it’s hard to get past her extended Dylan mannerisms to appreciate the song below. Some of her vowel sounds last so long that the “Fourth of July” doesn’t end until Labor Day. But live with In the Cool for a week or so, play it twice a day every day, and you slowly begin to discover Brown’s strengths. This is music rooted in all the same good fertile soil that Dylan and Williams plough, and while Brown’s songs are seldom a match for those of America’s two greatest song-writers, her best work stands up well in the company of, say, Lori McKenna or Mindy Smith.
As consumers, we are lucky to be living at a time when there are so many talented singers working in those same fields fed by the rivers that flow from the folk, country and blues hinterlands. Performers like Pieta Brown, however, may feel a little less blessed because the accomplishments of their peers only highlight their own blemishes.
In Pieta Brown’s case, the biggest problem is her lyrics. The music and production are both quite lovely, courtesy of the most excellent Ramsay, whether suggesting echoes of Johnny Cash (“Ring of Gold”, and not fire), exploring old-time country (“This Old Dress”) or mining the same blue landscape that yields diamonds for Lucinda Williams. Brown’s “Tears Won’t Be Good Enough” is the best example of her problem. This song could be an out-take from William’s Essence. Musically, it’s that good, but where the perfectionist Williams would’ve rejected the lyrics for their clumsiness and occasional adolescent poet pretension (“My heart is sitting on the fence, / Lost in mediocre decadence”), Brown exercises no such judgment, trying too hard, straining too far to fit her words to her music.
Inevitably, Brown’s best moments come on her simplest songs. “Still Around” puts me in mind of “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” from Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks. “How Many Times” recalls the less wordy moments from Highway 61 Revisited: “From a Buick Six”, perhaps, or “It Takes a Train”. Few modern performers can invoke memories of two of the very best albums ever made, and on the evidence presented by In The Cool, there is no doubt that Pieta Brown and Bo Ramsay can make truly important records together, but sadly this is not one of them. My suggestion would be that she learn from her singing “parents”, applying a little of Lucinda Williams’ ruthless quality control to her lyrics, and directing her songwriting firmly towards the simple beauties of Bob Dylan’s finest moments.