Greg Brown,
The Evening Call
(Red House, 2006)

Like so much old-time blues, Greg Brown's new CD opens with the well-traveled phrase "I woke up this mornin'," which is pretty much where everything begins. In the fashion of a deep-country songster, he rips into bitter complaint about love's treacherous ways -- but only before, in a dizzying turnaround just prior to hitting the exit, pronouncing its triumph. I guess that's why the song is called "Joy Tears." We nod, after all. We know that not all that long ago in romance-time Brown married Iris DeMent, and we reflect that few singer-songwriters, maybe especially ones who are wed to other singer-songwriters, are able to resist emotional autobiography.

On the other hand, in the closing number, the uncharacteristically melodic -- and, in the fashion of an aged folk song, downright exquisite -- "Whippoorwill," Brown eschews romantic triumphalism, perhaps tipped off to changing fortune by a shifting, however slight, beneath the feet. In a geographical reference (to DeMent's native Kansas City) that makes it clear who is the "you" being addressed, the thrice-married Brown growls, "If you ever leave me / and I imagine you will...." Man, that's just asking for it.

The listener -- or at any rate one who's been around long enough to have been taught some comparably hard lessons -- will wince in recognition. In his writing Brown is not reticent about the brutal truths that bruised experience and a scarred heart expose. Brown, who gets to compose songs about this sort of thing for a loyal fan base, harbors the profound, if uncynical, affectional skepticism of the late Raymond Carver, his literary mentor. Like Carver, Brown, of rural Iowa, excels as an observer of small yet complicated lives lived in places where, widespread belief holds, nobody lives and nothing happens. At least that matters.

In its most realized moments, and there are many of them, The Evening Call recalls the best of late-period Dylan in the way it conjures up a world that is at once the one in which we reside in this moment and an otherworldly realm, populated by ghosts who keep the past, in both its lived and larger cultural forms, always near, never escapable, as implacable as hell hounds on trails. In particular, the title song -- a minimalist, masterly tale whose aging narrator struggles to contain despair at his mortality and fury at a younger lover's sexual betrayal -- feels as if set in some dark ballad universe. If Dylan had written it, it would be one of his most revered songs.

Recorded in Memphis, Call depends as much on restrained, silences-laden atmospherics -- where Bo Ramsey (who co-produces with Brown) transforms his electric guitar into snake or spook as the occasion demands -- as on melodies. Most melodies are, in fact, threadbare, but again, so are the rural-blues tunes of which Call's are the shadowy essences. You've heard a version of this approach before, if you're familiar with the recordings produced by Gurf Morlix, specifically Ray Wylie Hubbard's, perhaps working from a template set decades ago by J.J. Cale. In any event, Ramsey and Brown favor a more toned-down version, minus fat blues and rock chords, which puts Brown's conversational singing at all times to the fore, where it belongs. Overall, this is a most effective approach, and overall, this is a more than ordinarily accomplished album.

Not every cut here is as good as the finest of them, though. Here and there the tunes provoke modest irritation at their evanescence or grave monotone. "Bucket" is too long and too specifically personal to sustain much interest. The talking blues "Eugene" is surely better suited to stage performance than to preservation on disc, where it will have finished its business for most after one or two listenings. On the other hand, "Kokomo" sort of reminds me of the Band's classic "The Weight" -- the themes are broadly similar -- but, if as strange, is immensely scarier. "Cold & Dark & Wet" and "Pound It Down," which stare hard and refuse to blink, are bold, powerful and memorable.

I suppose Brown's singing isn't for everybody. Sometimes he brings to mind a guy who has stumbled down a hard road, gotten staggeringly drunk and woken up this morning to discover that somehow a bunch of marbles crawled into his mouth. Actually, that's my idea of good singin', but I'm just sayin'.

by Jerome Clark
11 November 2006

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