Iowa City has earned a positive reputation as the center for a certain type of music—a mixture of folk, rock, blues and country—exemplified by such artists as Greg Brown, Bo Ramsey, Death Ships, Kevin Gordon, Dave Moore, Dave Zollo, Kelly Pardekooper, and many others. Photographer Sandy Dyas has recently documented the scene in her excellent new book Down to the River: Portraits of Iowa Musicians. Smart asses call the town the Austin (Texas) of the Midwest, implying that Iowa City is merely a big stink in the middle of nowhere, but the truth is the town’s music can hold its own against any other scene. Maybe that’s why Pieta Brown’s latest CD was released in Europe three months before it was scheduled for a domestic release. Iowa City’s Brown, like many Hawkeye musicians, are better appreciated abroad than they are valued at home.
Brown’s Remember the Sun merits celebration. The disc succeeds on every level. The songwriting is tight (which was the downfall of Brown’s previous releases), the singing topnotch, the instrumentation solid, and the production crisp. Brown penned all the material. The lyrics reveal her Iowa heritage. There are no mountains or oceans referred to here. Instead the images come from the natural landscape of the Midwest: the sun, rivers, train tracks, and such—the stuff one sees everywhere, but notices more out in the prairie lands where there is nothing else to see. This gives the ordinary a sense of the transcendent. “You can find the sun wherever you go”, Brown notes on the title tune. That and the fact that the sun reappears every day are what makes the shining orb so special.
Brown sings in a dusty voice that sweetly rumbles and rolls like a babbling brook replenished by an underground spring. Her vocalizations have no sharp edges. She rounds out the measures and lets her phrases tumble into each other. She doesn’t reach for high or low notes, but just lets her voice slide into them. When she sings through an affected filter, as on her boasting litany of toughness “Not Scared”, Brown sounds like an unexplained phenomena of nature such as a hurricane on the plains. There is something real and powerful behind the weirdness of it all.
Bo Ramsey’s sparely beautiful electric and slide guitar playing skillfully complements Brown’s singing and acoustic guitar work. Ramsey’s laconic style (he never plays two notes when one will do) enhances the richness of Brown’s work in the way a little bit of salt brings out the flavor of home cooking. Brown and Ramsey co-produced the disc, along with Chris Goldsmith, in a manner that puts the vocals in the forefront but lets the guitars ring. Chad Cromwell’s steady drumming and percussion is also noteworthy. He keeps the tempos bright and never lets the music lose direction.
The best songs here are characterized by a wry intelligence mixed with an artful inventiveness. Brown knows how to keep things simple without being simple-minded, especially on tunes like “Sonic Boom”, “Innocent Blue”, and “In My Mind I Was Talkin’ to Loretta”. Brown tells the country legend who sang about rocky relationships and birth control back in the ‘60s how much things have changed (“divorce and pills are commonplace”), but complains that what a female’s role is has not become any clearer (“just what’s a woman supposed to do?”). Brown realizes that one can’t get an answer talking to an imaginary friend. However, one can find release by listening to music. As a solution, Brown plays one of Loretta Lynn’s old records.
I once ran into a London Times critic at South by Southwest who, after hearing Pieta Brown perform, told me how lucky I was to be from Iowa City. I usually feel provincial and unworthy at SXSW around all the big time industry and media people, but I understood that he was not being condescending. His envy was sincere. The excellence of Brown’s new album will foster even more admiration for the Iowa scene. That’s okay, reader, if you’re not from the Hawkeye state. We have plenty of room here for more music lovers.