During her show at CSPS in October 2013, Pieta Brown mentioned that she was working on her next album at Justin Vernon’s April Base studios in Fall Creek, Wis. As a fan of Vernon—better known as the frontman and songwriter of Bon Iver—I was anxious to hear the results.
I had concerns that the signature sound that Vernon assembled for his Grammy Award-winning 2011 album would be too heavy-handed for the delicate sound of Brown. But, aside from providing some backing vocals, Vernon doesn’t seem to leave any fingerprints.
Paradise Outlaw is Brown’s sixth full album since her self-titled debut in 2002 and a diversion from the classic country-blues heard on her last album, Mercury, which was recorded with Nashville studio musicians.
“I was thinking a lot about freedom, experimentation, poetry, folk songs, bending forms and voices.” said Brown in a statement about her new album. “I also wrote and delivered half the songs on the banjo, which was completely new for me.”
It’s this approach—coupled with the focus that resulted from recording at a studio where Brown was also staying while making the album—that seems to provide listeners with a bracingly fresh and expressive blend of folk and otherworldly ambience. Paradise Outlaw may be the most distinctly Pieta Brown-sounding record to date.
The presence of banjo on Paradise Outlaw, while new for Brown, is not overbearing and provides counterpoint plucking that helps add movement to the songs. Her remake of Mark Knopfler’s song, “Before Gas and TV,” the lonesome vocals and banjo on Brown’s version feel like a dusty Folkways field recording from Appalachia.
The production on Paradise Outlaw is expansive. Listening to the songs reveals the rich composition in each song. Every feature—every shimmering electric guitar note, quietly bubbling percussion, ringing acoustic strums and shy plunking of the banjo—is audible on close listen. Floating over it all is Brown’s breathy soprano holding court with a mix of despair and hope.