Pieta Brown Explores New Atmospheric Directions on 'Freeway'
Enlisting the contribution of previous collaborators, Pieta Brown expands her sound but forsakes essential folk groundwork on Freeway.
20 September 2019
Pieta Brown's previous release, 2017's Postcards, saw the Iowan folk artist perfect the process of remote artistic interaction, with each song written by Brown and finished separately by other artists. However, her eighth studio album Freeway embraces the shared presence of others. Recorded over just three days and featuring several of Brown's previous collaborators, including drummer S. Carey of and bassist Mike Lewis of Bon Iver, and guitarist Jeremy Ylvisaker of Alpha Consumer, Freeway is a culmination of musicians collaborating in the moment. With her collaborators hearing the songs for the first time in the studio, Brown hoped the immediacy of the recording process would force them to rely on their gut instincts, and react to the music and band members in real-time. The result is an album of surprising atmospheric expansion.
Following opening track "Ask For More", much of the album rests on signature folk sounds – strumming and fingerpicked acoustic guitar, light percussion, faint vocal harmonies, and piano flourishes – lead by Brown's soft, sultry vocals, to create a tenderness, almost politeness, across the album. "Coming Down Again" features some of the most engaging guitar work on the album, as dual acoustic guitars interlink an arpeggiated chord progression, supplemented by humble but pleasant vocal melodies.
Title track "Freeway" takes the album in a more folk-rock direction as driving percussion and a gritty electric guitar riff push the song forward. "The Hard Way" continues this trend as Brown's acoustic guitar is pushed down in the mix to make room for a more animated drum section, driving rhythm guitars and the welcomed contribution of Mark Knopfler whose tasteful licks – played with the usual style and finesse – smatter the track. This more rock-oriented sound reaches its height on "Beyond the Sun" with all acoustic guitar substituted for (slightly) overdriven electric guitar, that warbles with vibrato and is given a brief solo.
The most surprising, and exciting, tonal choice of the album is the atmospheric, almost ambient, accompaniment in many songs. While Freeway retains its folk core and Brown's vocals continue to take center stage, songs like "Morning Fire" feature echoing, tremolo-laden electric guitar, dim cymbal splashes, and faint piano melodies that create an almost cinematic quality to the music. That element used with mixed success. On "Before We Break" an ambient guitar drone gradually builds throughout the song, providing an apt tonal accompaniment to Brown's sentimental lyricism and following a perceptible ebb and flow of the song. Less successfully, faint oscillating guitar leads and brief piano trills flitter across "Only Flying", providing little focus to a song that ambles along.
Brown's singing is another standout feature of Freeway. Following the established folk traditional of abandoning articulate diction, her gentle murmuring often verges on mumbling that well compliments the album's inoffensive tone. Lyrically, much of the album draws on natural imagery to explore desire, heartache, and loving affection, while closing track "Shelter Now" includes more politically conscious lyrics: "Under surveillance, under construction / What good now are those wars we won." Regrettably, few of these lines are memorable.
Brown's atmospheric explorations on Freeway add an exciting dimension to the album that, although unrefined at times, make for engaging and enjoyable listening. It is a shame that the album is at its weakest when its core folk elements are exposed, with its lyrics and vocal melodies remaining largely immemorable.