Greg Brown always sounds like he’s having fun. Even when he’s complaining about a woman who left him, he can’t help but bask in the memories of how sweet the romance once was. When he’s stuck in a cold, dark, wet place, his tremulous voice remembers how good the warmth once felt. It’s not that Brown’s an optimist. He’s too much of a realist to believe the best is yet to come. But he knows how to treasure the small moments of pleasure and contentment, and they bring a smile to his face that can’t help but be expressed in his deep, guttural vocals.
Yeah, Brown’s vocals are so goddamn weird that they get the brunt of a listener’s attention. The voice seems to come from somewhere deep in his stomach and get strangled by his liver, lungs, and kidneys on the way to his mouth. That’s a good thing. Body and mind are one, and he’s not dumb. Brown writes intelligent, poetic lyrics with a sense of humor and delivers them with his whole carcass rattling. This is especially true on Evening Call, his first album of all new material in over four years and his 23rd release in his nearly 30-year career. Brown’s songwriting has never been more creative. His voice never sounded more demonstrative. And as an added bonus, the backing instrumentation has never been more sensitive to the nuances of Brown’s many moods.
Like most of Brown’s records, this one is produced by electric guitarist extraordinaire Bo Ramsey and Brown himself. They know how to create an aural soundscape that emphasizes single notes hanging in air and a tempo reminiscent of walking the rails. Besides the clever intermix of Brown’s rhythm based acoustic guitar and Ramsey’s decorative electric guitar picking, credit also belongs to Rico Cicalo’s cool bass accents and Steve Hayes’s in the pocket drumming and percussion.
But the playing would mean nothing without the songs, and Brown has come up with a dozen winners. The highlight is clearly “Eugene”, a six-minute travelogue of fishing spots and the open road told by a cross-country journeyman searching for the heart and soul of the American dream. It’s a throwback to beatnik poetry and nod towards the unknown future. Brown’s evocative imagery, “coffee-stained stack of maps”, “book of flies from a Missoula pawn shop”, “kipper snacks, smoked oysters and gun powder tea”, “cold whiskey from a tin cup”, etc., and keen observations about life, “the blandification of our whole situation”, “everybody’s got a story, everybody’s got a family, and a lot of ‘em have RVs”, “trout are English, bass are Polish”, “roads are stupid crowded everywhere, kids are used to it”, and such, make this one of those long songs that you wished would never end. Brown sort of talks it and sings it at the same time, in the tradition of a Jack Kerouac or Lawrence Ferlinghetti (the latter of whom is name checked in the song).
The other songs seem more conventional in their approach, but are just as unusual in their own way. Brown’s concerned with capturing the spiritual and emotional truths that guide are lives, and that often means reaching for the surreal as a way of communicating. He sings of empty cups “whose lipstick stains are kissing me”, when “the cold moon had to close her pretty eye”, and a myriad of other places, people and things that suggest much more than they say. And then again, there’s the way Brown tells his stories, with his deep voice redolent with an understanding of hidden mysteries of existence.
The biggest mystery on this album for Brown is love. It’s the underlying theme of most songs, and makes an appearance on all the rest. Perhaps that’s why his corporeal presence works so well, for that is the place where the body and spirit meet. “People who say they understand love, they are either a liar or a fool,” he sings directly on “Joy Tears”. That doesn’t stop Brown from trying to understand what love is or explain it in his music. If that makes us fools for listening, well I’m happy to be one.