Greg Brown,
Dream City: Essential Recordings Vol. 2, 1997-2006
(Red House, 2009)

The Iowa-based singer-songwriter Greg Brown -- cult favorite, critics' darling, once subject of a full-length New Yorker profile -- has been at it a long time, honing a style that owes in equal measure to folk-music and literary influences. It's not entirely fair to compare him to anybody else, but if you haven't heard him and want some broad idea of what to expect, you might imagine what Richard Thompson might have been like if he'd grown up in the rural Midwest. And then there's the real Midwesterner, one B. Dylan, but isn't there always?

Brown is almost shockingly prolific, which places him in another category with Thompson and Dylan: maybe he writes too much. A musician pal once remarked to me that as impressive as Brown's best material is, there's also a fair supply that is less than top-notch. "He needs an editor," he said. On the other hand, as with Thompson and Dylan, even Brown's second- and third-tier compositions are an improvement on a whole lot of the competition's top. In any event, on this retrospective surveying a decade in Brown's artistic life, he does have an editor, and a good one: Red House head Eric Peltoniemi, who happens also be an old friend of mine and no slouch as a songwriter himself, compiled these cuts. Disc one consists of 16, culled from six Brown albums; disc two has four, all previously unreleased live pieces.

If you want to put together a Brown collection, clear off a bunch of space on your record shelf. Here's a good place to start. Dream City showcases Brown at his peak, a high mountain indeed. A few of the songs here compare favorably to anything Thompson, Dylan or anybody else is writing these or any other days. Three are from Brown's ambitious Evening Call (which I reviewed here on 11 November 2006) which, if slightly uneven, is in the neighborhood of a masterpiece, and something of a departure from anything he'd cut before. The resurrected cuts are "The Evening Call," "Kokomo" and "Joy Tears," each an astonishing composition and an exemplar of pure, unsparing performance, not exactly oldtime blues in a technical sense but filled with that strange, soul-shaken spirit.

Brown delivers the lyrics in a croaky drawl. Like many memorable folk singers, his is not a conventionally pretty voice, but it wouldn't work so effectively if it were. It makes him sound like the characters he's singing about. If they were telling you about their lives, they'd tell them to you in that ragged rumble, too.

Some of the songs, however, are tuneful in a recognizable and pleasing way, including the evocative "Summer Evening" and the downbeat-romantic "Blue Car." The apparitional aural landscape of "Lull It By" -- just Brown and banjo -- calls to ear and imagination a place haunted by the likes of Ed McCurdy and Gordon Bok. "Samson" is the only actual (which is to say traditional) folk song on the album, but Brown's "Mattie Price," eerily still and measured as if hung in an unnatural calm just moments before the eruption of terrible violence, could pass as one: "You better get married, Mattie Price / Trouble's goin' down." You'll shift uneasily in your chair, suddenly cold.

review by
Jerome Clark

4 July 2009

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