Blessed with a warm, glassware-rattling baritone rumble and a gift for illuminating life’s small moments with freeze-frame, close-quarter intimacy, Greg Brown has drawn heavily on his family ties and the people, rural hamlets and seemingly endless fields of his native eastern Iowa for inspiration, somehow managing to extrude universal appeal from patently parochial sources.
The past decade has proven to be one of steady artistic expansion for Brown. Some of this growth can be attributed to time and experience, but attention must go to the increasingly symbiotic musical relationship between Brown and Bo Ramsey, his longtime guitar foil. Ramsey’s blues ‘n’ R&B proclivities have pushed Brown’s music farther afield, even as the singer’s spirited compositions have drawn in and fused with the guitarist’s copacetic soundscapes and gem-cut solos.
Covenant, the singer’s 15th full-length for Red House, was produced by Ramsey, with Dave Jacques, Steve Hayes, Rob Arthur and Eric Heywood rounding out an ace band. It continues the stylistic stretching of 1997′s Slant 6 Mind, combined with Brown’s broader (and decidedly more soulful) vocal stylings.
Opening with the sly confessional of “‘Cept You And Me, Babe”, Brown and crew slip off into a loose-limbed trio of Southern soul strutters — “Real Good Friend”, the swamp gospel of “Living In A Prayer” and the languid “Blue Car” — then torch the works with the itchy, insistent blues-rocker “Dream City”. The lovely “Rexroth’s Daughter” revisits familiar Brown turf; the muscular, brooding “Blues Go Walkin’” provides Ramsey with a showcase for his world-class chops; and a lacy acoustic guitar propels the bittersweet “Waitin’ On You”. “Lullaby” is a classic blue-collar love song, while “Pretty One More Time” aches like a late-autumn, Midwestern sunset. The band lays down an infectious groove on the set closing “Walkin’ Daddy”, yet another in Brown’s series of paeans to his father.
Brown also has released a second set of brand new original material, Over & Under, which fulfills his long-held dream of assembling an all-star band of Eastern Iowa homeboys to make a rustic, “back-porch” record. Based on a late-night drive across Iowa last summer, the twelve songs on Over & Under were written in the three days following the Covenant sessions. The disc joins Brown and Ramsey with local ringers Steve Hayes, banjo wizard Bob Black (ex-Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys), fiddler Al Murphy (Robbie Fulks, Special Consensus et al), keyboardist Dave Zollo and harmoni-cat Dave Moore.
From touching (“Dear Wrinkled Face”) to “touched” (the perverse graveside huckstering of “Ina Bell Sale”), the homeys kick up sparks in a diverse, provocative set that corrals significant elements of the region’s mythos and ethos. “Fairfield” is a jaunty tour-guide/piss-take on the area’s municipalities, while the frenetic “Almost Out Of Gas” and “Betty Ann” rock as convincingly as anything in Brown’s catalog. “Shit Out Of Luck” and “Why Do You Even Say That?” mine the depths of despair; “River Will Take You” and “Your Town Now” are moving, cautionary tales on mortality and community participation, respectively.
As different, yet as connected, as night and day, Covenant and Over & Under together provide a multifaceted look at a remarkable artist whose peak powers apparently reside somewhere between the present and the next time out.