Rachel Taylor Brown

World So Sweet
Penury Pop

Put on your thinking cap, it’s another Rachel Taylor Brown album! You may have misplaced your thinking cap since Rachel’s last release in 2009 (Susan Storm’s Ugly Sister), so we’ll wait here until you find it. While you’re at it, better put on your scrutability belt–because there’s a lot here that’s not particularly scrutable. And without your scutability belt in place, you’ll recall, your pants of discernment will fall to the floor. If not your scrutability belt, then better wear your best ironic underwear.

This is Rachel’s seventh release–her sixth album–as the Christmas recording 7 Small Songs from 2007 is only fourteen minutes long, fer cryin’ out loud. That doesn’t count. We have to draw the line somewhere. Everything she has ever put out displays a knack for arcanity–virtuosic compositional skills married to deep, dark lyrics dredged from some faraway farrago of the remotest subconscious. Idiosyncratic Christian symbology moves through it all like a ribbon of fudge through a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Have you found your thinking cap and scutability belt? Great. Let’s continue.

We begin the festivities with “Sweetness on Earth” which is mostly a variation on an F chord played by fifty acoustic pianos. Think of the a scaled down version of the 5000 Fingers of Doctor T executing the final coffin chord of “A Day in the Life,” fused (in a more melodic context) to the concept behind Glenn Branca’s 13th Symphony for 100 guitars–Hallucination City. Fifty of anything probably sounds pretty good–the choral effect and all. Fifty elephants simultaneously honking an F note would probably be majestic, to say the least, but would certainly create a much bigger mess at Sherman and Clay than fifty pianists probably did.

Anyway, after an extended stretch of the fifty piano crescendo, a vocal choir moves in to sing “sweetness on earth and all the world rejoices.” A proper introit to the service that is about to unfold. “Sister Jean” bleakly and obliquely recounts the tale of Jeanette Maples a fifteen-year-old girl from Eugene, who died in 2009 of extreme abuse at the hands of her mother. As is often the case, Jeanette more or less fell through the cracks before she could be saved by a social services system too overburdened to rescue her from the horror of her short, miserable life.

Over a jaunty, jolly “Martha My Dear” style piano, Rachel depicts the Pilate clean hands of a blissfully apathetic world. “We’re so sad about what went down at home/nothing left to do, you know we all regret it, we’re upset/there’s nothing anyone wouldn’t have done if only we had known/nothing we could do, you know we’re all upset, oh we regret it.” A swell way to kick off an album.

Stylistically, “Taxidermy” borrows from Kate Bush, Tori Amos and Fiona Apple (whatever happened to Fiona Apple, anyway?): wide open piano punctuated about halfway through by ghostly, slippery cellos. Lyrically, the first verse seems to be a masochistic literal deer-in-the-headlights perspective of a hunted animal. “You got me you shot me and will you hang my head/on the wall of your kitchen or over your bed?”

But the second verse seems to imply that the “taxidermy” in question is actually plastic surgery. “I can help, I can do it, I can do it myself/on a not-busy Monday, the fifth or the twelfth/take a whack crack me open, plant a needle right there/on the spot where the skin barely touches my hair.” Then again, maybe the song is a follow-up autopsy on poor Jeanette Maples.

Initiating the first of several homages to three-quarter time, “Modesto Waltz”  sets an ominous scene–over dancy piano, a gray nimbus hovers: “Carrion birds are circling outside the car/I look up and wonder just where we are.” I remember having the very same sensation of San Joaquin Valley dread when I was nine, and the family car broke down in Lodi in the ninety degree heat of July, and we spent the day at the park watching black swans glumly steer around Lodi Lake in the withering sun.

Two other waltzes, “Your Big Mouth” and “Mercy in Nebraska” head in different directions–the former a fairly direct circus theme of the macabre with implicitly enigmatic interpersonal references in the lyric. “Mercy…” has a swirly-whirly, neo-romantic quality, with nineteenth century brass and winds buzzing and wheezing in accompaniment.

The story line is an elusive narrative investigating the recent enactment of the “Safe Haven” law in Nebraska, where disaffiliated parents have been inexplicably allowed to legally dump their unwanted children at any certified hospital in the state. This song is the story of one guy who unloaded nine kids, but kept one–to remember the others by, one would suppose.

The closest thing to a “single” this set has is “Pritty Pinny,” and it’s a good one. Sort of Kristen Hersh-y. John Stewart’s big beat drums drive the song like a team of horses. It’s a charming little ditty about a one in-a-million girl. “Pritty Pinny in your pocket stick your finger in a socket/sparkle like an atom bomb and lay waste.” The low howl of a chorus only deepens the mystery. “What makes you so unkind?/You trip like a buried mine.” Sure! I think I’ve met her!

The sweet, sad ballad “Scotland” is a tribute to Scott Moritz, known as Scotland Barr of the band the Slow Drags, who died of cancer about two years ago. A simple lyric winds like a creek to the wonderful river of “every minute makes a minute/every hour has decades in it/so maybe a day can last forever/maybe a month will make it better.”

“How to Make a World Class Gymnast” is a harrowing koan comprised of the voices of random people, culled from the Woodstock Deli and an unnamed library, intoning the words. “You get them when they’re young and then you bend them/First an arm/Then a leg/Then the heart/Then the head.” This is either an obscure reference to something someone connected with the Chinese National Gymnastics team said. Or it may be further exposition regarding poor Jeanette Maples–or both, maybe. An exquisite form of torture, regardless.

A Bach-like counterpoint sifts through the prayerful “Didymus the Twin v. the Divine Sparkler,” which loosely contemplates the life of Judas Didymus Thomas–ostensibly Jesus’ twin; and one of four brothers and a couple of sisters born of Mary and sired by Joe, a busy couple they.

And, finally, “Joe/The Sacred Remains” not only serves as a bookend to “Sister Jean,” an echo of “Scotland,” but also as an extroit to “Didymus…”, not easily deduced from the cerebrality of Rachel’s introspective world view. But angelic choirs usher the album out as they ushered it in, to shine in a ray of sun, divining a gray rain cloud.

You can’t just throw on a Rachel Taylor Brown album and set about to washing the dishes or cleaning up around the house, or to watch TV with the sound turned down (although it could possibly work with Criminal Minds). No, with Rachel’s work you have to gird your rhetorical loins for an onslaught of contemplation that may be anathema to the typical American psyche.

Still, there are rewards. For it’s always of interest to observe an artist in her element creating some beautifully horrific scene for the betterment/appallment of all humankind. This, for Rachel Taylor Brown, is another morbid stop along the way to salvation. Like any well-constructed artistic car accident: it’s gruesome, but impossible not to gawk at.

Now you may rest your weary head. And pull up yer pants.

CD release show July 29th.

Steven “Pearly” Hettum

The Jangler + 2 Unreleased

Steve Hettum has been a presence within the local music scene for the past thirty years. He first made his name as the manager for Billy Rancher and the Unreal Gods back in the early ‘80s. He managed other acts as well. He had his fingers in numerous pies. His affable, accommodating nature has always stood him in good stead in the greater Portland musical community.

Steven “Pearly” HettumSomewhere along the line, Steve became a performer. He’d always dabbled at songwriting–he co-wrote several songs with Rancher, way back in the day. But it’s probably been at least twenty years, now, that he has been a solo musician. Because of his personable gregariousness, he has always been one to lead various open mics, or to be the main cog around song-circles or open-ended jams. Since April of 2010, he has been hosting an open mic at Eugenios on Wednesday Nights.

As happens, as one gets older–and we all do, Steve has had some health problems of late. He had one of his hips replaced last November, which left him with a severe limp and a reliance upon a cane–not because of the replaced hip, but because of the one still intact causing him intense pain.

So, with the aforementioned in mind, it was especially painful for Steve to discover last August a growth under his tongue. After practicing the well-known avoidance gambit for seven months, it wasn’t until April that he was diagnosed with cancer of the tongue. Not very hopeful news for anyone to hear. And for an exuberant singer/songwriter, not good to hear at all.

Last month, Steve underwent surgery. He had a significant portion of his tongue removed. Skin grafts were taken from his forearm to replace what had been cut away. He had numerous lymph glands surrounding his tongue removed as well. It appears that Steve has dodged a bullet. The cancer has not spread and the surgeons got it all.

His recovery has been phenomenally positive. Within a week of being released from the hospital, Steve was back at his post at Eugenio’s as host for the Wednesday Night Open Mic. Because his vocal chords were damaged during the operation, Steve doesn’t currently have much of a voice–hardly more than a whisper. But, fortunately, that condition is only temporary and he’ll be back to singing and raising hell very soon. Stop in and wish him well.

A couple of years back, Steve released an album called The Jangler, which contains eleven original songs, including three co-written with Billy Rancher, way back when. That album is a good primer for anyone unfamiliar with Hettum’s work, full of good-timey, country-tinged music, augmented by the likes of drummer Dennis Elmer, guitarists Jon Lindahl and Houston Bolles and bassist J. Michael Kearsey. Great ensemble work from everyone. There’s an element of Hank Williams in all of it–stylistically a good point of departure.

But there are variations. “Over Easy” one of the songs co-written with Billy Rancher sounds as if it could have come from Dire Straits in their prime. Lindahl’s Mark Knopfler-style guitar is impressive, and Steve’s raspy, edgy vocal is Knopfleresque in it’s own right. “English Rocker,” a boogie tribute to the late great Brit, Mike Khan, is sung in blimey cockney.

And, if one wanted a lesson in concisely clever songwriting, one need look (nor listen) any further than to “Young Love,” which Steve co-wrote with Mike Khan. Stir Buddy Holly’s “Words of Love” into Sonny James’ “Young Love” and pore it over a melodic essence of Chad and Jeremy’s “Summer Song” and you have a sweet little pop song confection for the ages. Special.

The other two tunes Hettum wrote with Rancher are extremely catchy as well. “Then Again” has an Eagles-like country/rock feel, while “Party By Myself” rings of the country Stones circa “Dead Flowers.” Steve‘s compositions “If There Comes a Time“ and “That’s Bein’ Country” are soulful ballads, a little reminiscent of Jackson Browne.

Just a short time before he went into the hospital, Steve ducked into the studio to record as much material as he was able–with the understanding that it was a possibility that he might not be afforded the opportunity again for a while–if ever. Two of those tracks, “A Cowboy’s Song” and “For Pete’s Sake” display more of Hettum’s ready knack for crafting thoughtful, catchy blues-tinged, country/folk/rock.

On “A Cowboy Song” Steve’s jagged vocal sounds like Van Morrison fronting a Texas country band through a jangly, minor-key manifesto. A soupcon of Paul Simon’s “Slip Slidin’ Away” in the melody. As infectious as it is componently strange.

“For Pete’s Sake” is an introspective country-flavored ballad–a reminiscence upon wisdom inherited from the homilies of some past sage: simple advice, but practical and true. “It’s hard when you are young/Just can’t wait to turn twenty-one…” The upshot being–“For Pete’s sake slow down, son/Learn to walk before you run/You don’t have to be a rolling stone/Find a woman and keep her safe/Cherish all the friends you make/Slow down son, for Pete’s sake.”

Sound counsel, no doubt, but certainly nothing that a genuine human-being under the age of twenty-one would ever actually consider. So, the intention in this exercise would seem, ultimately, to be ironic in function. But plainly and succinctly put, all the same.

Steve Hettum has been traversing a gravelly path of late. But, it’s sure that he will overcome all obstacles with the same determination and grit reflected in his songs.