Rachel Taylor Brown's latest collection of offbeat chamber pop opens with a meditative, hymn-like song about St. Francis and his calling. Then "St. Fina" arrives with a relentless industrial pounding: "Did Jesus love you when you hurt / Like he hurt?" It builds to a repeated call in which the word "Jesus" evolves from the name of a savior to the expletive it's so often used as in daily life.
Brown's bald way with a lyric makes her the rare artsy songwriter whose references one is impelled to look up. Unfamiliar with St. Fina, I discovered that she was a 12th century Tuscan who died in even more gruesome fashion than most saints. (The English-language Wikipedia article on St. Fina needs a good deal of editorial help, but it's charmingly quirky: "She was one of the nicest people on earth," it plainly states, and who are we to question?)
Brown writes biographical sketches of historical and fictional characters in plain, non-ironic lyrics. It's the haunting, off-kilter music, piano-based with industrial flourishes, that makes one listen again, seeking hidden messages. This contrast distinguishes these numbers from biographical songs by rootsy songsmiths like Bruce Springsteen or Willie Nelson, or, for a more musically relevant parallel, Katell Keineg. In most such efforts the writer's perspective on the subject is never in doubt. With Brown, you have to lean in and listen hard.
Given that, she is also capable of hitting hard. "Once a Jew always a Jew," she sings in "Teresa Benedicta Also Edith Stein." "You know Jesus was too / And look what happened to him."
In a perfect world, Brown's superhero songs, which make up half the tracks, would be distributed in goodie bags at Comic-Con. In them she gives equal opportunity to cultural mainstays like Batman ("Bruce Wayne's Bastard Son") and silly sidelights ("Ambush Bug/Reduviidae"). And despite the cartoonish quality of some of these stories, by the time we've arrived at the final track for one more saint tale, "Zoe of Rome," we've had ample opportunity to get the point that saints are superheroes, and vice versa. Both possess miraculous powers and inspire devotion and hope for rescue.
Rachel Taylor Brown's plainspoken, harrowing stories don't betray much about what their author really believes. But that's art for you.