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Off the charts: Brown faces golden years with poignant new tunes

2013-01-11T00:15:00Z Off the charts: Brown faces golden years with poignant new tunes The Billings Gazette
January 11, 2013 12:15 am

Greg Brown

“Hymns to What is Left”

Sawdust Records

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Even if all 30 or so of Greg Brown’s albums haven’t been great, they’ve all included great lines.

“Mary burns all night / With her robe hanging open / She tells me there ain’t one thing gonna be like I was hoping,” he sings in the new song “Hanging Man.”

Later, he describes a sundown as “a razor cut bleeding on the west.”

At 63, with kids and grandkids and a million miles on the road, Brown is feeling his advancing age. He’s sounding it, too. His voice has coarsened into a rumbling, old-man-with-bad-teeth croak that suits these songs reflecting on a hard life lived well.

The exception is an inexplicable falsetto in “Besham’s Bokerie,” that doesn’t entirely work. But what does work is that the older Brown gets, the simpler his songs have become. Like his last several albums, “Hymns to What is Left” is a stripped-down affair, with light back-up from longtime collaborator Bo Ramsey, along with some banjo, fiddle, mandolin and accordion.

And Brown, who once described himself as “rich in daughters,” has two of them here adding harmony vocals, along with wife, Iris DeMent.

In “Bones Bones,” he says his body “groans like an old tree limb.”

“I got a tiny little future / And a great, big past,” he sings.

He revels in family life and “being a part of everyone,” in “Now That I’m a Grandpa,” and he moans the “Fatboy Blues.”

There are other songs of parenting and religion and death of loved ones.

“You just get more lovely, the older you get,” he sings in one song.

That’s sure true of Greg Brown.

 

Graham Parker & The Rumour

“Three Chords Good”

EMI Records

It was never really clear why Graham Parker broke up with his band The Rumour in 1980.

With their blazing horn section, the band had elevated pub rock to a rowdy art form and it backed two of Parker’s finest albums, “Squeezing Out Sparks” from 1979 and “The Up Escalator,” on which Bruce Springsteen provided backing vocals.

Now, at age 62, Parker has put the boys back together for their first studio album in more than 30 years.

Gone are the horns, but other than that the band doesn’t even try to change its sound. It was good then, it’s good now, and it’s easy to see why Parker and Springsteen have such an affinity for each other.

Parker’s voice, which always sounded something like a cross between Elvis Costello and Mick Jones, is still in fine form. And he can still twist a word into shape. In the reggae-groove opener “Snake Oil Capital of the World,” the word “oil” leaves a stain.

They go full Atlanta soul on the mid-tempo ballad, “Long Emotional Ride” and “Old Soul.”

Not everything works, however. Without horns, songs like “She Rocks Me” features a kazoo, and the politics can get a little heavy-handed with “Arlington’s Busy” and the unsubtle abortion song, “Coat Hangers.”

But even when he’s trying too hard, it’s nice to see Parker is still capable of squeezing out some sparks.

 

Chastity Brown

“Back Road Highways”

C&D Music network

She’s a banjo-playing soul singer, a harmonica-blowing gospel belter, a piano-pounding blues woman.

Altogether, Minnesota-based Chastity Brown is a rocking, rolling encyclopedia of roots music. And it’s hard to tell if that musical breadth is just her inclination, or that’s how much territory her voice needs to run around in.

For her fourth full-length CD, Brown returned to her native Tennessee to record the album and get back in touch her earlier Southern vibe.

She opens with the bluesy “House Been Burnin.’ ”

“I’m just looking for a resting place / Trying to catch my wind,” she howls over a steel guitar.

“When We Get Through” is more of a swaying, groove-heavy ballad, with a folky harmonica break that recalls a certain more famous Minnesotan. And she channels Lauryn Hill in the glossy “Say It.” The closer is a B3-sweetened gospel number called “If You Let Me.”

“Lord if you let me / I’ll sing one more song,” she pleads.

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