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.