Album Review: Rachel Taylor Brown

World So Sweet (Penury Pop)

[PIANO SONGS] Rachel Taylor Brown knows how to make an entrance: With a roomful of 50 pianos playing the same notes for two minutes straight. After that, one half expects Liza Minnelli to jump out from behind a curtain to sing a hammy version of "At Last." But instead, Brown uses an elaborate choir to sing a Christmas carol-sounding variation on the title of her record: "Sweetness on Earth/ Sweetness on Earth/ And all the world rejoices."

This is the kind of ambition that can sink an album: How are the next 12 tracks supposed to measure up? Brown's immediate answer is to craft a Beatles-meets-ELO slice of theatric rock called "Sister Jean," which enlists help from local musical mainstays Leigh Marble, Danny Seim and Justin Harris—and some blues yelps from Brown—to tell the story of a girl who died from relentless parental abuse. Yup, World So Sweet is going to get pretty inscrutable. 

Not that Brown has ever shied away from boundary-pushing, but everything here—from the ghostly voices of strangers on the striking "How to Make a World Class Gymnast" to the shocking marching band explosions of "Mercy in Nebraska"—smacks against the ceiling of what's possible on a production budget and what one songwriter should realistically put herself through, emotionally.

"Scotland," for Brown's friend, deceased Portland songwriter Scotland Barr, is the most striking and bare example of this. "There's no telling when will any of us go/ And for most of us we'd rather never know," she begins darkly, reminding of a kinder version of Randy Newman's "Old Man." Even when contrasted with Brown's slightly more digestible moments (see the rocking "Your Big Mouth"), these gut-wrenching tunes can be difficult to swallow. But for those who like their music to challenge their ears, hearts and minds, Rachel Taylor Brown remains a seemingly inexhaustible resource: This is her at her most present and personal.

SEE IT: Rachel Taylor Brown plays Mississippi Studios on Friday, July 29. 9 pm. $10. 21+.