IMAGE: KRISSY WESELOH
[WEIRD POP] Rachel Taylor Brown’s new recording begins with an unsettling collage of toy piano, ringing telephones, muted voices and scattered crowd noise. It’s an aurally arresting intro, and on most artists’ albums it would make a perfect, say, 30-second lead-in to the first song. But this is a Rachel Taylor Brown album, and that piece—titled “Hemocult/I Care About You”—lasts for seven minutes.
Brown plays with mod-popper Chris Robley in local outfits the Sort-Ofs and the Fear of Heights, but her solo work doesn’t make a listener’s job easy. It defies genre classifications or comparisons to other artists; her lyrics often elude rational understanding—heck, she’s just plain strange. But while Brown’s earlier efforts have sometimes been greeted with befuddlement and mixed feelings, on Half Hours (produced by Jeff Stuart Saltzman) she answers critics of her idiosyncrasies with a casual, “I meant to do that.”
Silly love songs these ain’t. “Hemocult” shares its name with Hemoccult, a cancer test detecting (in the words of its manufacturer) “occult blood in the stool.” From that point, Brown sifts through our culture’s shit, wondering why it’s so damn ill. “Hemocult,” or “blood cult,” is an appropriate epithet for Brown’s perspective on contemporary Christian America, from her closeup on Jesus’ crucified hand (or special-effects version thereof) in “Passion” to her missive to the family of “Another Dead Soldier in Fallujah.”
“Passion” amounts to a musical review of Mel Gibson’s infamous torture-porn Bible epic and might be Brown’s first truly great composition, rivaling Terry Allen’s “Dogwood Tree” in milking lyrical profundity from the crucifixion. Taking on two Testaments in a row might be a bit of a stretch, though, and her glib “Abraham and Isaac” can’t match Leonard Cohen’s “Story of Isaac” or the immortal pith of Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited.” But when Brown’s track gets caught in a thicket of synth strings, squealing guitars and a Queen-worthy chorale, it’s affecting musically if lacking lyrically. Meanwhile, the song works as a thematic segue from the violence-against-God images of “Passion” to the God-of-violence target of “B.S. (Beautiful Savior),” “Fallujah” and the wordless “Arlington.”
Brown’s music (pretty as it sometimes is) doesn’t make for “easy listening.” She never lets herself get away with easy writing, arranging, playing or singing. Life is hard; art imitates life; and this is art as hard—and ultimately rewarding—as life itself.
SEE IT: Brown celebrates the release of Half Hours With the Lower Creatures Saturday, April 5, with the Brothers Young and Kaitlyn ni Donovan at Mississippi Studios. 10 pm. $8. 21+.