CD Review of Susan Storm’s Ugly Sister and Other Saints and Superheroes by Rachel Taylor Brown
Rachel Taylor Brown: Susan Storm’s Ugly Sister and Other Saints and Superheroes
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Tori Amos, Polly Jean Harvey, Christine McVie
Label
Cutthroat Pop
Rachel Taylor Brown:
Susan Storm’s Ugly Sister and Other Saints and Superheroes

Reviewed by Michael Fortes

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W
hen Rachel Taylor Brown casually remarked to me that Susan Storm’s Ugly Sister and Other Saints and Superheroes would be "smaller" than last year’s Half Hours with the Lower Creatures, she wasn’t kidding. At eight songs and a running time just under 25 minutes, Susan Storm is barely an album by today’s standards. And with much sparser arrangements, the sound of the record feels more intimate – in spite of the many different sounds woven into the record, Rachel’s voice, piano and stories always take center stage here.

And oh, the stories! Her dark, wild imagination hasn’t diminished an iota. Not so much a concept album as a collection of songs following a loose theme, Susan Storm finds Rachel creeping into the minds of the imaginary siblings and offspring of superheroes, like the title character she plucked from the Fantastic Four and Batman’s Bruce Wayne, on the first half of the album.

Brown’s depiction of the more earthly power of invisibility ("I could kill you and you won’t notice me") possessed by the sister of the Marvel character so well known for her ability to disappear is chilling, and the repetitive refrain of "daddy got around" in "Bruce Wayne’s Bastard Son" has the effect of transferring the title character’s frustration directly to the listener. But the solo piano and vocal treatment of "Lonely Galactus, the World Eater" succeeds best here – the way Brown treats this character both musically and textually, it’s hard not to feel sympathy for the world-eating monster who’s so lonely that he only wants a child of his own.

The stories only get crazier on the album’s second half, as saints both obscure ("St. Fina," "Zoe of Rome") and well-known ("Giovanni Bernadone," a.k.a. St. Francis of Assisi) have their neuroses – imagined or real – exposed like gaping wounds. Brown’s exclamations on behalf of St. Fina ("Jesus! Jesus! Look at me!") are the best representation of what she has done to these tragic characters – instilling them with a naïve vulnerability that make even the staunchest believer question the sanity not just of these saints, but of those who conferred them their status to begin with.

While the connection between these two seemingly disparate groups might seem tenuous on the surface, in typical fashion, Rachel finds common ground in their shared dysfunctions and tragic circumstances – pain and suffering. The bastard son wishes to be closer to his father, the world eater seeks companionship with a son, the ugly sister suffers over her distance from her prettier sibling… and the saints all suffer to be closer to God.

For all its focus, however, Susan Storm hints at so much more. Just as Bob Dylan once remarked that each line of "A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall" could be the opening of a whole other song, each of the songs on Susan Storm could be the epicenter of a whole other album. Brown isn’t just teasing us, she’s sitting on a whole franchise here… and potentially, her own line of action figures.

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