Pieta Brown’s ‘Freeway’ Boasts of Strength, Grace & Confidence (ALBUM REVIEW)

Freeway is the ninth full length recording for Pieta Brown, along with four Eps. It’s almost hard to conceive that she’s delivered so much output because one of the best aspects of Brown’s music is that each recording is different than the next, some radically, some more subtle. Her voice is a marvelous instrument – pure, ethereal, intimate, soothing, and naturally. Perhaps unintentionally sultry. It’s such a focus that it often masks the power of her poetic writing. And, even though she’s had many different supporting musicians over the course of her albums, she has a canny knack for finding those who are in synch with her unique airy vibe.  On Freeway, released on Ani DiFranco’s Righteous Babe label, marking Brown’s departure from her long term relationship with Red House, DiFranco commented on Brown. “It’s like a magic-hour walk across a field of Pieta songs, blowing in the comely breezes of some devastatingly understated musicianship and production. I love that every aspect of this record seems to be conspiring to amplify the haunting lilt of Peita’s voice. The one that she was born with.”

You may have already heard the three singles that have been released including “Ask for More,” “Morning Fire” and “The Hard Way,” the last of which features Mark Knopfler, now, having appeared on her last two albums, a rather frequent collaborator. Brown says, “…So one day I just wrote him a message and asked if he would consider taking a listen to this track. I said I felt like it wasn’t quite done yet, but I wasn’t sure what it needed. I said, ‘I’m hearing the sound of you or something like what you do, and I can’t give you specifics beyond that. And he said, “Yeah, of course, and came up with a great part that made the song undeniable.”

Brown thinks this album is a major shift for her, marking transitions in her musical life, home life, in her creative life, and in her country. Since her 2017 Postcards Brown relocated to Europe for the better part of a year in order to star in her first feature  film as an actress. She played a singer in foreign language film with everything in French and collaborated on the music of the film. Naturally this led to changes in her professional and personal life, leading to pretty fragile state of mind when she entered the studio, but also now possessing some newfound creativity. 

Freeway was recorded at Justin Vernon’s April Base Studio in Wisconsin, a place where she has recorded before. It was cut live in just three days, with most songs in just a few takes. Brown plays acoustic and electreic guitars with producer S. Carey (Bon Iver) (drums, keyboards), bassist Mike Lewis (Bon Iver, Andrew Bird), and guitarist Jeremy Yivisaker (Andrew Bird, Alpha Consumer) forming the backing unit. Those bands give us an insight to the atmospheric, sensitive, and imaginative support.

This stands in stark contrast to the way Brown usually records. For example,  Postcards was collection of songs written alone in hotel rooms around the world and recorded  in intermitted fashion like an international game of telephone. This time, Brown wanted the intimacy of human interaction and spontaneity. The players heard the songs for the first time in the studio and had to rely on their gut instincts and each other to pull it off, which they did beautifully.

Nature plays into the album. Not only does she frequently use images of the sea, the sun, forests, fire, and water; but they placed a microphone outside in the words while recording in the studio. You hear those sounds at the outset of the album and faintly in some other places. As much anything, Brown is adept at nuance and subtlety. “Ask for More,” the opener, speaks to our resilience and relative unimportance in the larger scheme of things. “Morning Fire” finds love even in the ashes of despair (“in the smog of apocalypse/I reach for you as the horizon slips’) while “Only Flying” speaks to both a  fresh start and sorrowful farewell. The Knopfler-assisted tune reflects on growth that comes from pain.

Long gone is the rather bluesy, at times unsure of herself Pieta from her early recordings. Her voice now is of feminine strength, a bastion of grit, grace, and confidence. It remains as gorgeous as ever and these songs are among her best. Suggest you hit repeat at least once. Subtlety and nuance don’t always sink in the first time.

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