Personnel: Pieta Brown (vocals, acoustic guitar); Bo Ramsey (electric guitar, electric 12-string guitar); Richard Bennett (electric guitar, lap steel guitar, resonator guitar, bouzouki); David Mansfield (strings); Glenn Worf (acoustic bass, electric bass); Chad Cromwell (drums, percussion).
Audio Mixer: Mark Polack.
Recording information: British Grove Studios, London, UK; Lamplight Studio, Primm Springs, TN.
Less can be more, but a little extra doesn't hurt either. This album, recorded in three days with the musicians playing together in the studio (somewhat of a rare situation, even in roots music these days, with the advent of Pro-Tools), is a subtle but substantial step forward from Brown's 2009's Red House label debut. That was a stripped down, Don Was- produced EP which captured a moment yet seemed somewhat unfinished. This follow-up finds Brown with longtime foil/producer/guitarist/partner Bo Ramsey and the majority of Mark Knopfler's band (with whom she toured in 2010) adding subtle yet significant heft to the songs. That's not to imply there is anything slick about the final product which maintains a sparse feel, keeping the focus on Brown's caramel-coated vocals. While it was knocked out in three days, there is nothing rushed or hasty about the performances. Brown and Ramsey take their time on these rootsy gems, crafting them for maximum impact, even if that means keeping only vocal, acoustic, and occasional electric guitar in the mix as they do a few times. But when Brown lays into a soulful version of Ray Charles' "What'd I Say" groove from "I'm Gone" with light drums and some lead fireworks, the eye-opening result shows that her music benefits from the slightly fuller approach. Glenn Worf's elastic standup basslines on the title track along with simple brushed drums is all it takes to move the tune into one of Brown's, and this album's, finest moments. A blues undercurrent runs throughout, which is not to say it's a blues album. But that sensibility adds ample soul and emotion to a style which ends up as folk/country/R&B, not far from Lucinda Williams territory. Like Williams, Brown's distinctive voice carries the day with its ability to turn even the most commonplace lyrics into poetry with her slurred, poignant delivery. Brown even shifts into Otis Redding territory on the moving "I Want It Back," a love letter to a lost boyfriend that comes off as both defiant and vulnerable. Knopfler appears briefly to add his (overdubbed) mojo to the bluesy "So Many Miles," but there is little he does that couldn't have been played by Ramsey, whose own snakelike lines bring considerable mystery to the material. If the idiosyncratic Williams can break into the mainstream, there's no reason why Brown can't follow that lead and with the terrific Mercury. She's got the goods to make the leap. ~ Hal Horowitz