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(31 July 2011) Rachel Taylor Brown's new album is entitled World So Sweet. What does it sound like, though, you ask? Well, look up "pithy" and "pith." The thesaurus reads: "succinct, concise, compact, to the point, epigrammatic, crisp, significant, meaningful, expressive, telling." "Pith" means "essence, fundamentals, heart, substance, core, crux, gist, meat, kernel, marrow, weight, depth, force." "Pith-rock" is a weird and awkward moniker for Portland, Oregon-based Rachel Taylor Brown's music, and maybe a little too close to "piss" said with a lisp. But, it fits, especially when you put on her seventh full-length, World So Sweet (Penury Pop (USA) 2011). Read our review and some of the artist's comments on the record below.
"I can never come up with anything pithy when someone asks me that. I hate when people ask me that," grumbles Taylor Brown, when asked to describe her music. "As a joke, I sometimes say pith-rock; sharp 'n' pointy! Or spongy and permeable! Or maybe pith 'n' vinegar rock! No, wait: there's that horrible thing they do to frogs in a lab, that's pithing. Maybe igneous-rock is better."
Talk to those who know her music, though, and other descriptions come up. "Unsettling but addictive." "Good stories." "Unpredictable." "Arresting." "Dark, funny, sweeping, panoramic, pretty, ugly, complex, moving." And, "You can dance to it." But to fully grasp and understand World So Sweet and Rachel Taylor Brown, you have only to listen to the record.
"I realized in retrospect how dark these songs may come off. I wish I could explain better how they make me feel hopeful," explains Taylor Brown. "I always feel better when dark things are out in the open instead of hidden away. Looking at the scary stuff makes me more appreciative of the beauty in the world, makes me feel like my feet are on the ground." She continues, "I think it helps that you can dance around to many of them. I can see someone getting down to one of these songs and never knowing what the hell I'm singing about. I like that the songs can be enjoyed on that level--it makes me feel sneaky. Lyrics are very important to me but I know a lot of people don't listen to them, especially now. It's interesting to see who notices the words and who doesn't."
It's that love of life, humor, curiosity, basic compassion, and a healthy dose of skepticism that fuels Taylor Brown. It's heavily reflected in everything she does, including the thirteen tracks found on World So Sweet.
"I love the people I love, and the beautiful world," she continues. "I'm fortunate. There was a time I didn't want to be around. Now that I do, it's sweet, every day; even when it's horrible. There are birds. The world is sweet, even though it's awful. That prayer I had to say when I was a kid: 'Thank you for the world so sweet, thank you for the food we eat, thank you for the birds that sing, thank you, God, for everything.' I've always loved that prayer, even though I don't believe in the God part anymore. I love anything that reflects even some little awareness that we're living with a whole lot of other creatures and that we're just one bit of the whole thing."
Rachel Taylor Brown might best be described as a dubious but hopeful observer who watches the world and the people of the world destroy and create beauty daily, just one witness who can tell a story through song.
"These songs are about the usual mundane things that seem to preoccupy me; how great and how awful people are and how beautiful and ugly the world is," she says. "There's huge scope in that. I know I have a comfort level with some of the things I write about that others may not have, due in large part to my own history. I'm not thinking of how it may hit anyone else when I'm writing. I'm usually surprised when my husband or some other listener points out that it's maybe hard to hear. I really believe in letting a song be what it wants, though. And I guess some (ok, a lot) of my songs want to be peppy tunes about the worst of human nature. I have to say, though, I find that contradiction very satisfying."
It all starts to make sense when you push play. From the opening of "Intro/Sweetness on Earth," Taylor Brown will stop you in your tracks and make you think about what it is your hearing. Never one to play to convention, she's made an intro that some friends and colleagues urged her against but that she went ahead with anyway.
Resulting from a last minute call, fifty-eight people showed up at a downtown Sherman Clay piano showroom to simultaneously play fifty plus pianos, which engineer/co-producer Jeff Stuart Saltzman (with whom she's recorded her last five albums) recorded. The group turned out to be a great pick-up choir as well. What you hear is tension as fifty pianos sound off, building and building until you feel it's going to end, then continuing on, always tugging at you, as you restlessly and anxiously await to see where it's all leading.
"I was told by some people that I should consider shortening the intro. But I tried chopping it and it didn't work," she says. "The thing I like about it at the length it is is that, if you let it, it can put you in a kind of trance state. I think each unique brain will make something different of what it picks out and hears in all that sound. I hear little bits of melody pop out but I'm guessing someone else will hear something different according to their own personal library in their noggin. I like to imagine it's different for everybody and (potentially) different every time you listen, just because of your own magical brain! I'm also aware some people will just hate it and think I'm being self-indulgent. Which I am, but now I've told you why."
That mindset, that unwavering, uncompromising dedication to her music, making sure it translates as well on tape as it does in her head, is what makes Rachel Taylor Brown and thus World So Sweet such an interesting experience. It's the type of record where, if you only casually spin it, it will leave you missing out on nuances, intricacies and rewards that can only come with closer acquaintanceship.
For all the hurt and pain in the world, like all of us Rachel Taylor Brown goes on. Creating music that is equally pretty and haunting, sometimes simple but sometimes epic, the perfect strange cocktail of darkening doubt, lightening hope and "it's got a good beat, you can dance to it." Music that's meaningful but catchy, a paradox of everything the world has to offer. With World So Sweet she brings to the surface good and evil, creating an album that is as rich as it is sparse, dense as it is airy.--Alex Steininger in Portland, OR and Russ Elliot in Boston, MA