I've been trying to figure out what makes Pieta Brown's far-from-flashy seventh record so replayable — it has become a Sunday morning staple around here — and I think it may be a sense of listening in; both to Brown's quiet, lonely, bluesy folk ruminations of life on the road, and to the musical conversations she has with her peers. It has an honesty to it; a realness.
The concept of Postcards was simple: Brown sent out demo-like versions of the songs as musical postcards to her friends, and they responded by recording parts wherever they were and filling things in. Brown's songs on Postcards are barebones — usually just her on acoustic guitar, and her longtime collaborator/husband Bo Ramsey on electric guitar — and the guests responded to her soft songs by keeping things appropriately subdued, so unless you really listen closely (or read the liner notes) it may not be obvious that this is a guests-heavy album.
Starting off atmospherically with Calexico, from Tucson, AZ, on "In the Light," Ramsey's guitar is watery and Brown's voice bluesy as they draw you into a hypnotic knot that gets tighter and swirlier with "Rosine" (which sounds like it's in an alternate tuning), on which Mike Lewis's (Tallest Man On Earth, Andrew Bird) soft-blown sax, recorded by Justin Vernon (Bon Iver), is piped in from St. Paul, MN.
Mason Jennings broke with the pack and actually did a lot to the song he played on, which, probably not coincidentally, is also the catchiest: "How Soon," supported by Jennings' hand drums, bass, keyboard and harmony vocals (and Ramsey on 12-string acoustic guitar) is just the kind of charming plea you want to cry out to a friend on a rainy day — or have cried out to you.
She follows it with "Street Tracker" (backed by Dire Straits' Mark Knopfler, in the UK), one of the album's most quietly yearning songs. Ramsey sits this one out, leaving Knopfler's warm, bendy, bluesy electric guitar alone with Brown's vulnerable voice. That voice can be so soft and delicate that at times (as on the chorus of "Once Again," with David Mansfield) that she's breathing more than singing her words. They come across as pure notes of emotion.
The difference between the different collaborators is more obvious on repeated listens: "Stopped My Horse" (with Brown on banjo and Carrie Rodriguez on fiddle) is folksier, for lack of a better word, while "Station Blues," with Brown on slide guitar and Chad Cromwell (Neil Young) on drums, is bluesier. "Take Me Home" (with David Lindley) reminds me of Iris DeMent in Brown's delivery (her father, songwriter Greg Brown, is married to DeMent), and things open up even further and get even more atmospheric on "On Your Way" with pedal steel and e-bow care of Eric Heywood (Son Volt, The Pretenders).
The closer, "All the Roads," is a familiar affair, Brown singing about the strange loneliness of hotel rooms while backed by Ramsey and his sons' band the Pines. It sort of sums the record up best when she sings, "now I'm in a hotel reading hotel reviews, comparing soap dishes and fluorescent blues, wishing like hell I was done paying my dues." If this is the fruit of her labour out on the road struggling to make a name for herself, I think it was worth it. (Lustre Records)