Album Review: Sylvee & the Sea — ‘The Less I Needed the Better I Felt’

Pieta Brown says time she spent in Tucson and the friends she made there sparked a music career. These friendships continue to this day as she works with AZ legends like Howe Gelb from Giant Sand and Joey Burns and John Convertino from Calexico. She has appeared on three albums from Calexico, and they returned the favor on her 2017 album of collaborations titled Postcards.

Like many artists during the pandemic lockdown, Brown found herself working on music by herself. She recorded instrumental fragments, really sketches of music, to Convertino who fleshed them out with his drums and vibes. She sent some of these tracks to Don Was — of Was (Not Was), president of Blue Note Records, and who lent his bass to Brown’s 2009 EP Shimmer — to add upright bass, and to CARM — of Y Music and Bon Iver — to add horns. Her only rule to the players was “no charts, no fear, no thinking, no remorse.”

Considering that none of the musicians who participated in the recording were in the room together, the album, which is credited as Sylvee & The Sea, is very cohesive — a testament to the fact that all of the players are seasoned and able to play “in the moment.” As stated in the liner notes, “The final mixes bore proof to the notion that cool things can happen when you use the force and let go…”

The title The Less I Needed The Better I Felt speaks to the minimalist approach to the proceedings. It’s apparent that the very short (often two minutes or less) tracks clearly started with Brown’s piano and guitar. Convertino, Was and CARM take her lead, delivering performances that fall in the free spaces or adorn the melody. For many of the songs Convertino brings deconstructed bits of percussion — not driving the song but providing improvised punctuation. On songs like the opener “Sun Rain” Convertino’s vibes and drum fills wash over Brown’s long-delay electric guitar.

Taken in whole, the album presents a contrast of movement and stillness. Most of the songs are short sketches lifting the bits of melody Brown started with, but a few of them have more structure and present a different story. If there is anything I’d compare the songs on The Less I Needed The Better I Felt to, it would be the atmospheric soundtracks that Ry Cooder has made over the years, specifically the soundtrack to Paris, Texas. Many of these songs carry a similar kind of abstract moodiness.

“Redistortionate” is one of my favorite tracks on the album. The band locks in and the song moves with a more structured beat over a shimmering and melodic guitar line. The listener can almost fill in a vocal part by Brown; it sounds like an outtake from one of her albums. Clocking in at a minute and 44 seconds, it’s not nearly long enough, and every time I listen to it, I restart it to get another loop.
Another track that has movement is “Distillery” which sounds like New Orleans jazz. Brown delivers a piano line reminiscent of an old time gospel song, Convertino drops in a march beat and CARM layers over bell-muted trumpets. A vibe and sound that we’ve never heard before on her records!

In recent years, Pieta Brown has expanded the scope of her music beyond the guitar-slinging singer-songwriter we’ve come to know and love, and redefined herself as a performer. Her sonic experimentation will surely inform her future work, proving that she is larger than the genre she is typically put in.

This article was originally published in Little Village’s February 2023 issues.