Premier vocalist-songsmith Chastity Brown’s Silhouette of Sirens (Red House Records) takes a serious, hard-earned next step. The artist’s ascent has been fascinating to witness.
Years ago, principally by benefit of sheer grit, she took to You Tube and self-produced discs of erratic quality and varied fidelity, introducing herself to the Twin Cities after knocking around in Memphis and Knoxville, doing gigs and taking in the open mic circuit.
She wasn’t above sitting in at such spots here, getting hit and run exposure, baring mixed reviews, including playing one coffee house where the host didn’t even get her name right.
On the heels of Do the Best You Can and Sankofa — neither of which set the world on fire but garnered a small, fiercely loyal following — came High Noon Teeth, a solid outing that saw her artistry, a uniquely self-styled brand of acoustic soul, brilliantly evolve into the signature sound of a master at the craft.
Proving that was no fluke, for that matter that she hadn’t crested, Back-Road Highways and Long Way firmly established Brown as an artist of undeniable consequence. Her following has since mushroomed into fanatical droves descending into packed houses at venues like Cedar Cultural Center, First Avenue, New Century Theater and the Dakota.
As with Richie Havens, Tracy Chapman, Carolina Chocolate Drops and label mate Guy Davis, Chastity Brown (chastitybrownmusic.com) is far from typical, steeped in rural fare that once fell under the catch-all “folk-rock.”
Indeed, you’ll hear hints of folk, at times rock-and-roll, now and then some jazz, while the overall effect is grounded in gospel. Bottom line, it’s highly original.
Her voice, immediately recognizable, is coarse, given to melancholy and starkly emotive, affording even her most laid back ballads a sense of compelling urgency.
Richly poetic wordplay is refreshing strength you don’t often find these days. In fact, one of the few drawbacks here is that the package doesn’t contain lyrics. The lack of which truly is a loss when you consider “Strong Enough” from High Noon Teeth, paying impassioned homage to James Baldwin and Zora Neale Hurston with the chorus repeating, “We were strong enough/to fight them off/by the ways they just kept comin’/by the waves we were strong,”
before the sardonic verse comes in:
“Jimmy said it must have happened/ Someone closer to the dawn/ remembers picking up his jacket/ heading out and gettin’ gone/ Somewhere Z just leaves the office/ swollen eyes and heading home/ they didn’t understand her language/ too much diction in her tone/ ’cause ink was bleeding on the pages/ all she had to do was change/ to thumb out, to play numb.”
Silhouette of Sirens is not consistently her best work, but the standouts are strong. “My Stone” captivates, Brown’s eccentric phrasing delivering a delicate, bittersweet melody. “Pouring Rain” is an unexpected, most welcome gem.
Departing from her stock-and-trade tendency toward the somberly reflective, whenever Brown rears back to kick up her heels and rock out, she joyously raises splendid hell. Like she does here. Other highlights are “Carried Away,” an upbeat ballad cramming thoughtful lyrics in a-mile-a-minute as only she can get away with, and the album’s anthemic opener, “Drive Slow.”
Brown (guitar, incidental piano) is backed in the main by a crackerjack lot — guitarist Robert Timothy Mulrennan (who co-wrote half the material), veteran session ace Greg Shulte on drums and percussion, bassist Jim Anton and DeVon Gray on keyboards with several guests ably pitching in on instruments and vocals.
After watching Brown slug it out in the trenches over the past decade or so, it’s rewarding to see her at last go national, indeed international, recently touring England, Ireland and Italy, playing the U.S. through September. And fitting that she does on Red House Records, well regarded for its devotion to sustaining and popularizing roots music. With Silhouette of Sirens this deserving artist’s time apparently has come.
Visit chastitybrownmusic.com for more information on Chasity Brown.
Dwight Hobbes welcomes readers’ responses to P.O. Box 50357, Mpls., 55403.