Iowa City artist David Dunlap is well known for his postcards. The University of Iowa professor would frequently send the cards out unfinished for the recipient to finish, or gather them in a series that made some kind of associative rather than narrative sense for the viewer to process and complete. It’s unclear whether part-time Iowa City native (she moved around a lot) Pieta Brown was directly influenced by Dunlap’s work, or if it was just part of the town’s atmosphere, but her latest release Postcards shares a lot (conceptually) in common with Dunlap.
Brown penned simple acoustic version of the songs while in hotel rooms on tour and sent them to various musical collaborators, including Calexico, Mark Knopfler, and David Lindley, to turn into a shared track. That is what is meant by them being postcards. Brown and her collaborators never worked in the same physical place or spent time together.
The results are quite lovely and fascinating. Brown’s soft, soothing voice links the songs together even as they differ from each other in tone and substance. Sometimes her postcards explicitly resemble the real kind mails by saying “wish you were” here in some friendly, caring way, such as the delightful “How Soon” performed with Minnesota’s Mason Jennings. Jennings lets Brown take the lead while he becomes the manifestation of desire as the guitar sensuously builds tension in the background.
Other tracks, such as “Rosine” with Mike Lewis of Bon Iver, showcase Brown as the traveler heading to a destination of her choice. Lewis’s sax becomes part of the peaceful scenery she traverses, while Brown’s vocals and guitar carry the weight of the journey. And then there are songs such as “Street Tracker” with Mark Knopfler, in which the narrator just wants to remain planted in one location. Brown sings that she “doesn’t want to go” in a gentle but firm voice while she carefully picks the notes as Knopfler’s strings ring in the background.
Most of the songs have a folk feel because of the acoustic instrumentation, but others tend to be more old-time country, like “Stopped My Horse” with Carrie Rodriguez and “In the Light” with Calexico. These tracks evoke a more mythic America of dark places on the margin where a person could be solitary and weird, where a person would not have to fit in. Brown’s vocals become spookier as the songs continue.
Brown has an ethereal voice, so the ones with the most instrumentation, such as her work with Chad Cromwell (“Station Blues”) and The Pines (“All the Roads”) come off as the most finished pieces. That said, a large part of the disc’s charm lies in its very sparseness. In some ways, the more spectral Brown sounds, the sexier she comes off—as if not having a body makes one anticipate something more fleshy and attractive than what is real.
Brown’s postcards are just short messages sent from the road, but some missives have more to say than others. Brown’s songs work best when the landscape is overwhelmed by the characters. The world is full of depictions of sunsets and prairies in all their glory. There is a real, deep, human need to witness and document this. But the world is also full of people. Brown’s postcards function best when both sender and addressee engage each other as people as well as artists.
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