Album Review: Pieta Brown — ‘Freeway’

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The press material for Pieta Brown’s new album, Freeway, quotes guitarist Jeremy Ylvisaker asking, “what kind of music IS this? Prairie gaze?!”

The question, while humorous, touches on the sonic explorations of the sessions that make up her eighth album. This freeway of song is dotted with many roadside attractions of pure beauty.

For her first album on Ani DiFranco’s Righteous Babe label, Brown returned to Justin Vernon’s April Base studios, where she made 2014’s Paradise Outlaw. Brown was joined in the woods by a troupe of interrelated musicians including Bon Iver regulars S. Carey and Mike Lewis, as well as Ylvisaker, who is in Twin Cities band Alpha Consumer with Lewis. Their connection is the spun silk that makes up the web that captures the magic of these songs.

On the surface, what draws the listener in is Brown’s singing: Her signature laid-back, often intimate and disarmingly captivating vocal style is center stage. At times, it feels like eavesdropping on her alone, singing to herself.

The presence of Carey, Lewis and Ylivisaker is subtle, paying honest tribute to the songs. The typical everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to producing a Bon Iver record has been tempered to the point that you don’t really notice it — but on close listen, there are all manner of interesting ear nuggets.

Track nine, the hypnotizing “Before We Break,” moves away from a typical Brown arrangement to something that sounds like it could be a Bon Iver track. A circular ticking of spare drums with slinky bass line is echoed in the way Brown builds upon the lyric, using repeating phrases to make a kind of chant. “Around / around the forest / the forest / the forest you took / from a weathered book / to make a picture / and take a look.”

Beneath the foundation of instruments bubbles a liquid stream of swirling and churning feedback swells.

Brown said she hopes to never have to answer the question of what kind of music she makes. After eight albums, she has established a distinctive voice in music: timeless, but at the same time all her own. She makes Pieta Brown music.

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 271.

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