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Emily Brown: Fish of Earth
by George Graham
(Song Club Records, as broadcast on WVIA-FM 11/25/2020)
I have remarked quite a few times in this album review series about the musical diversity of the singer-songwriter genre, which has expanded well beyond its beginnings in a guitar-strumming folk-influenced setting. Singer-songwriters can be acoustic, electric, or electronic, solo or large-group settings, drawing influence from rock, folk, blues, jazz, country, soul, hip-hop and even classical. This week, we have fascinating new recording by an artist who by the arrangements on her record, evokes classical chamber music in a slightly quirky set of songs that runs from whimsical to ruminating. It’s the new album by Oakland, California, based Emily Brown, her fifth release called Fish of Earth.
Growing up in the desert region of Southern California, raised in a Mormon family, in which adventurous self-expression was discouraged, Emily Brown nevertheless credits a grandmother with some of her musical inspiration, and she took a strong interest in poetry. Her academic background includes an MFA in Creative Writing. While in college, she was a founding member of a couple of folk groups, and toured with the Utah-based folk band The National Parks. She had been releasing albums since 2011.
Her last release Bee Eater from 2018, included some classical chamber-type arrangements in the context of more conventional guitar and piano settings. For her new album, she wanted to try something a little different. She had collaborated with Stuart Wheeler on Bee Eater and began working remotely with producer and multi-instrumentalist Bly Wallentine, based in Provo, Utah. What she did was to record a bunch of songs on her cell phone and then send the files to Wallentine and Wheeler, to bounce ideas off them, saying she was not discerning about what she included in the batch of files. Wallentine and Wheeler suggested stripping out the piano and guitar and creating orchestrations for the accompaniment instead, perhaps taking their cues from the creative chamber ensemble Ymusic who has appeared on recordings by Paul Simon, Ben Folds and My Brightest Diamond among others.
The Utah-based group appearing on Fish of Earth includes prominent woodwinds, some of which are played by Wallentine, and also including such instruments as bass clarinet, plus a string quartet, brass instruments, and un-classical instruments like vibes and pedal steel guitar, plus some Latin percussion. The result is a very engaging record that incorporates an almost stream-of-consciousness lyrical style with the often surprising arrangements. Ms. Brown has a slightly quavery but appealing voice that further adds to the album’s very distinctive character. The compositions run from a vignette of under a minute to a nine-minute musical rumination. Most of the compositions are variations on love songs, but she takes up such subjects as wanting to become a mother, facing an impending marriage, and consideration a relationship as a game show.
Opening is a track called Amen Amen which sounds like a kind of church group, with the brass instruments sounding humanly wheezy at times. <<>>
Rather charming and quite eclectic is Baby Wanting a consideration of motherhood, with the mostly woodwind and percussion ensemble providing a thoroughly distinctive approach. <<>>
Also about a milestone in life is a short piece called Mrs. Arnolfini about an impending marriage. It’s another piece that defies ready categorization. <<>>
Rather more conventional is a song called I Get the Feeling which could almost be an old country song, were it not for the arrangement, which contains a rare instance of conventional drums and some acoustic guitar. <<>>
A track called Dread is as quirky lyrically as it is musically, with a kind of mile a minute stream-of-consciousness narrative, joined by the string quartet. <<>>
I think that one of most clever tracks on the album is called Traipsing a whimsical love song, with the chamber ensemble’s arrangement to match. <<>>
Another memorable track is a song called Game Show which lik ens a love affair to such a media event. It starts out in a more conventional setting with acoustic guitar <<>> before the chamber ensemble makes its appearance coinciding with the lyrical development of the song. <<>>
Perhaps the most striking track is Lonely Habits, an introspective piece accompanied by the eerie sound of what seems like a glass harmonica, the sound of rubbing ones fingers across the rims of glasses of water, which is later joined by a steel guitar. <<>>
Fish of Earth, by California-based singer-songwriter Emily Brown is a fascinating recording of thoughtful poetic, idiosyncratic songs, accompanied for the most part by a kind of chamber ensemble of woodwinds and brass with the addition of a pedal steel guitar and other seemingly incongruous instruments for an instantly distinctive and engaging sound. It’s the sort of thing that immediately grabs one’s attention, and yet is quite charming. Her Utah-based collaborators, producers and arrangers Bly Wallentine and Stuart Wheeler, create the highly distinctive musical settings that elevates the songs to a greatly different level than the usual singer-songwriter fare.
Our grade for sound quality is an “A.” The recording is remarkably free of studio effects, with not even noticeable reverberation, with a live-in-the-studio quality for the chamber group including a few little imperfections that bring the listener into the performance.
Singer-songwriters come in many different musical flavors that have been widely explored. Emily Brown, on her new album, has created music that stands out even in a crowded and well-trodden field.
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