CD Review of Half Hours with the Lower Creatures by Rachel Taylor Brown
Recommended if you like
Kate Bush, PJ Harvey,
Sufjan Stevens
Label
Cutthroat Pop
Rachel Taylor Brown:
Half Hours with the
Lower Creatures

Reviewed by Michael Fortes

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A
s one of the still-below-the-national-radar names in the Portland music scene, singer/songwriter/pianist Rachel Taylor Brown isn’t necessarily positioning herself to break on through to mass acclaim with Half Hours with the Lower Creatures. She’s taken her album title from a 1918 marine biology textbook that probably nobody walking this earth remembers. Several of the album’s songs skewer the (idea of a) god that has been the driving force of mainstream American culture – or at least the contingent that has kept Fox News and the current presidential administration in power –for the past decade or so. And to top it off, she begins her album with a seven-minute, slow-building mini symphony of ringing phones, cash registers and other “mall” sounds, eerily sung and sampled vocals, toy piano and garbage can percussion, curiously titled “Hemocult/I Care About You.” (Is this the sound of the unsettling feeling one experiences while awaiting the results of a test for blood in a stool sample? Is it cancer?) Just from surface appearances, the album appears ready for a losing confrontation.

And yet, these reasons and more are what make Half Hours such a compelling, and ultimately addictive, listen. Its lack of immediacy and its artful mix of fully fleshed-out songs and short art-pop vignettes only adds to its charm, much like Brian Wilson’s Smile. Rachel’s background even coincides a little with the Beach Boys mastermind, as she herself suffered a breakdown that forced her into hibernation for about as long as Brian went down between the aborted Smile sessions and his big ’76 “comeback” – about eight years. But unlike Brian, Rachel came out of her breakdown swinging, and with a lyrical depth to match her musical ambitions.

Rachel Taylor Brown

Rachel’s fifth release overall, Half Hours takes some of the musical magic she created with producer Jeff Stuart Saltzman on the 2006 mini-album Ormolu and takes it unapologetically further into proggy, heretical territory. The piano-based compositions find her accompanying herself mostly with a reserved voice, which has the effect of throwing more focus into the arrangements. Not that she can’t belt out notes with awe-inspiring power – her backing vocals in fellow-Portlander Chris Robley’s touring band the Fear of Heights often bear this out. But in service of the songs, holding back works dramatically well, especially with her choir-boy styled multitracked vocals on “Abraham and Isaac (The Whack).” As one would guess, it’s based on the disturbing Biblical tale of the father that God ordered to kill his firstborn son. The music peaks with gritty guitars, Mellotron-ish synths and soaring background vocals that blend into the arrangement like horns in an orchestra.

There’s really so much going on in these songs that there’s nary enough space to get into all the details in the confines of a concise review. The prog-like majesty of the snarkily-titled “B.S. (Beautiful Savior),” the somber solo piano and vocal performances of “Passion (The Goad)” and “Another Dead Soldier in Fallujah” (where the sonic effect is akin to a literate indie-pop reincarnation of Christine McVie), the little wordless vocal-instrumental vignette “Arlington”... It’s an album that is all too easy to obsess over, chock full of headphone moments and subtle-yet-stunning church-like washes of vocals providing intentional juxtaposition to pointed lines like “See the blood, see the gore / Wonder why this is what we are for?” It connects on that visceral level to which all those who question faith can relate, and is so musically well-thought-out, one wonders just where Rachel’s musical journey will lead next. [Insert preferred deity here] only knows...

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