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Music Review: Rachel Taylor Brown – Half Hours with the Lower Creatures

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Most singer-songwriters wouldn't start off a CD with a strange, more or less wordless, seven-minute space oddity of toy piano and the ambient sounds of a shopping mall. But Rachel Taylor Brown isn't like most singer-songwriters, and Half Hours with the Lower Creatures isn't like most CDs.

That opening track, "Hemocult/I Care About You," may chirp and plink like the soundtrack to a trippy video from the 1960s, but it's the right introduction to the unique sonic world that's encompassed in this plastic disc like a weird playground in a snow globe. Brown and co-producer Jeff Stuart Saltzman have twisted and woven Brown's off-kilter songs (and "songs") into a forceful and intriguing suite that uses some of the conventions of rock and pop – from the Beatles to PJ Harvey, from Laurie Anderson to noise-rock – but in unexpected combinations that somehow always make a kind of sense.

It's like a Sergeant Pepper for a decade lacking in hope. The theme of sacrifice predominates, introduced in the first real song, "You're Alright Sorla One (The Sell)": "you're alright of course you'll feel a little pain / you're alright everything is gonna change / i could wish a different kind of story."

The story that follows isn't different, it's unpleasantly familiar, but observed through Brown's unique artistic lens. "This hurts me more than it hurts you," says Abraham in "Abraham and Isaac (The Whack)." Someone is always feeling pain. In "Passion (The Goad)" it's Jesus. In "Mette in Madagascar (The Mission)" it's the singer, quietly fuming at a missionary's smug righteousness.

In "B.S. (Beautiful Savior) (The War)" and "Another Dead Soldier in Fallujah (Waste)" the victims are obvious, but Brown turbocharges her attack on the Iraq War by tying war motives and imagery to religious themes.

Musical colors also recur from song to song. The last long song, "Vireo," has obscure lyrics about the title bird, but the music grows spacier by the minute until it harks back to the opening track. It's followed by the sparse, beatless "This is a Song (Sorry)" in which, finally, the singer herself becomes the aggressor; but all she can do to vent her anger is to hurt someone she loves: "this is a song for someone i love i kicked in the gut i punched in the / eye this is a song for someone i love, this is a / song for didn't deserve it this is a song for better than i…"

That, right there, is the poetry of 21st century disillusionment. Just in case you were looking for it.

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About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is an Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Culture, where he reviews NYC theater; he also covers interesting music releases. He writes the blog Park Odyssey, for which he is visiting and blogging every park in New York City—over a thousand of them. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. By night he's a working musician: lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado, a member of other bands as well, and a sideman.
  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Jon,

    I’ve had this one sitting in my “pile” for awhile now. It looked interesting from day one, but I’m sure you know how it can be trying to “dig through the pile.” So I guess I just needed some inspiration to finally pull it out and give it a listen. Your review has provided that. Thanx!

    -Glen

  • Carolyn

    I’m an “old person,” someone who would not normally listen to this music, but this review has made me want to hear it–so that’s what I’m going to do right now.