Saturday, December 12, 2015

Rachel Brown & the Beatnik Playboys. Once Again.

Rachel Brown & the Beatnik Playboys. Once Again.
Self-released, 2014.  Rachel Brown:

This album had me confused at first, thinking that Rachel Brown had gone all Charles Ives on us, and was overlaying two songs at the same time. It would sort of make sense, then suddenly not, while she would sing two parts of different songs, then quick rhythms would come in over a slow beat. Very pretty, but dissonant and rather oddly modernist. Then I realized that while I was listening to her CD on my laptop I also had her website up, and it was playing her songs too. Nevermind. Pay no attention to my Saturday morning ravings.

We reviewed her previous album, Just Look My Way (2012) in 2013, so we seem to be right on time (or late as usual) with her 2014 release. Brown has the same band, and the combination of Watson, King, and Huddleston are more than able to keep up with their dynamo lead singer and pianist in the variety of styles she works in. Loosely described as Americana, she works in country, blues, jazz, gospel, and pop, sometimes all at once (although not in the way I described above), and approaches them all with a sense that is both casual and natural, like it’s no big deal, but still maintains the posture of a consummate professional. It’s hard to do both. She wrote all the songs except “Gone is Gone” (Nathan Bell), and “It’s Not Easy,” by bandmate Bill Watson. Thirteen out of fifteen ain’t bad.

The album begins with the title tune, a real cry-in-your-beer country ballad, showing off Brown’s sweet/sad vocals at their finest. “Mama & Daddy” harks back to the style of early Johnny Cash, (and even old folk songs) with Huddleston supplying deliciously ominous guitar. Classic honky-tonk is the style of “Maybe Tomorrow,” with some great piano by Brown, and a fine guitar break by Mr. Huddleston. “It’s Not Easy” takes us in a bit of a swing jazz direction, with Brown sounding a bit like Patsy Cline. A bluesier style appears with “Pretty Damn Damaged,” one of my favorites, and as you can see, we’ve covered a whole batch of styles in only the first half of the album. This versatility extends to the second half, with some Latin phrasings in “Mary Lynd,” a gospel number in “Bittersweet By and By,” a sweet duet with Alex Bevan on “When it Comes to You,” and delightful country/folk with “I Wish You Well,” Two tracks toward the end I found especially enjoyable. “Wind in My Hair” is a real earworm, with a really nice hook, a cool electric guitar break, and some great blues piano. The last track, “Gone is Gone (When You’re Dead),” is a fine driving closer, funny, thoughtful, and a great finish (no pun intended) to a great album.

So, the songs are excellent, the musicianship first class. But what holds the album together in all its variety is Rachel Brown’s riveting voice, strong, rich, and endlessly enjoyable. The band will be playing at the Music Box Supper Club on December 26th, and the Barking Spider in early January, while Ms. Brown will appear with some friends at the G.A.R. Hall in Peninsula a couple of times. Go listen.

Personnel: Rachel Brown (lead vocals, piano, acoustic guitar), Bill Watson (string bass, electric bass, vocals), Roy King (drums, percussion), Dave Huddleston (electric and acoustic guitars, mandolin, vocals), Chris Hannah (organ). With special guest, Alex Bevan (vocals, guitar, on “When It Comes to You”).

Tracks: Once Again, Mama & Daddy, Maybe Tomorrow, It’s Not Easy, Jimmy C, Simpler Times, Pretty Damn Damaged, My Best Friend is My Song, Mary Lynd, When it Comes to You, My Namesake, Bittersweet By and By, Wind in My Hair, I Wish You Well, Gone is Gone (When You’re Dead).

Jeff Wanser

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