“Half Hours with the Lower Creatures,” recorded with Portland audio guru and Jackpot! Studio mainstay, Jeff Stuart Saltzman (Stephen Malkmus, Menomena, Sleater-Kinney), is a piano-based creep-pop album. Though hard to describe, names that come up are Rufus Wainwright, P.J. Harvey, Kate Bush, and “Frankenixon (Sword of Exactly) conjoined with Charles Ives and Benjamin Britten.” Rachel Taylor BrownÂ¹s complex, polyphonic arrangements also conjure comparisons to Elliott Smith, Sufjan Stevens, Jeff Lynne, Laura Nyro and The Beatles/George Martin, and smart/poignant lyrics bring to mind Randy Newman.
The title of BrownÂ¹s new album, “Half Hours With the Lower Creatures,” comes from a 1918 marine biology textbook she picked up at one of her favorite bookstores. The title and its implicit declaration of species superiority was the perfect umbrella for a collection of songs about the centuries-old, tragic-comedy of human desire to be king, and to rule over something, anything.
Expanding on the vision and scope of 2006Â¹s “Ormolu,” BrownÂ¹s third full-length and first to really capture what she heard in her head, BrownÂ¹s latest originates with her curiosity. Call it a fascination with people watching or just plain interest in understanding what makes not only herself, but also her fellow man, tick. Â This is music cloaked in intelligent lyrics, dissonant forwardness, and out-of-nowhere pop sensibilities.
“IÂ¹m curious about motivation,” she discusses openly, “and why people do the things they do – partly due to my own personal history and pathology. Â I think my songs tend to reflect a preoccupation with injustice and the underdog, but (I hope) with some humor, too. Â The songs on this album – as they kind of shuffled together out of my neurotic mind – led naturally toward thinking about war and that human desire for control. Â But I think what I’m really talking about here is human nature and hierarchy.”
An analytical thinker and curious observer of life and human nature,
Brown reflects heavily in her songwriting, pondering and asking questions and trying at times to answer them, while at other times accepting the fact that there is no answer; just more questions. ItÂ¹s the thought process that created and melded “Half Hours with the Lower Creatures:” the lyrics driving the album while the melodies maneuver it.
“That title sort of said everything to me about who we are. We always have to be at least one rung up the ladder from something else, even if it’s a jellyfish,” comments Brown, discussing the bookÂ¹s name, which she borrowed for her album title. Â “It’s the history of humankind, one-upsmanship. Â It’s the disease that leads to things like war.”
Lyrics such as the ones found in “The Passion of the Mel” sum up BrownÂ¹s look at society, war, religion, and human interaction:
“Some people need a sacrifice; some gods do, too. / And an Us and a Them and a chosen few. / And the whips and the nails and the spear and sword / And the Happy End; and the Dreadful Lord.”
Summing up the album, Brown reflects, stating, “WeÂ¹re not much for learning from history, you know weÂ¹ll do the same things over again and again; the wars, the power struggles. ItÂ¹s all so predictable and painful. Â ItÂ¹s a reminder to me of how small we are. Â You know, just little creatures.
“But just when humanity frightens me the most, the beauty in the world and in people touches me. Â And blows me away.”