Darien Brahms: Number 4

She’s all okay

Darien Brahms is better than ever on Number 4

With one of the longest continuous careers in Portland music, Darien Brahms has been many things to many people. She was my first real local-music crush when I moved here in 1999 [this review originally ran in 2008; image is from 2012], after I first saw her frontgal, lounge-jazz strip-tease act at the Skinny with the Munjoy Hill Society. I know I’m not the only one who’s been captivated by her as chanteuse.

She’s been pegged, too, as an alt-country diva or anti-war activist, but on her solo records she’s mostly been an old-school rocker, who loves her guitar and knows how to spin a chorus. So, five years after the spectacular Green Valentine, it should be no surprise Brahms leads Number 4 with the most down and dirty tune that’s been rumbling around in her head.

“Cream Machine” is maybe the best blues song I’ve heard since the last Black Keys record, a cycling and dirty riff supported by a Bayou rattle and panting breaths. Her promise that “I won’t be your cream machine” is deliciously profane; she even purrs like a jaguar. I’m a little bit frightened. Sneering slide guitar tells you, “don’t even bother baby … chocolate (grunt) cream/ Cinnamon steam/ I know you can be sweet to me, baby.” A throaty organ from Jack Vreeland enters for the bridge, by which point you ought to be completely enthralled.

Cartwright Thompson’s pedal steel (Brahms gets a fair amount of help on this record. Guess she plays a good host at her home studio) next provides the underpinning for a dark and lumbering menace of a song, “Shut up and Be Quiet.“ Here’s the first of some nice poetry on the record, too: “Coded whispers fill the room of my unfurnished body/ Secret message, a new voice you finally gave/ And it’s not just another vacant figure of speech.”

On “For Crying out Loud,” we get this gem: “Does she suffer from too much religion/ Or every former lover’s final decision?” Paul Chamberlain’s bass is high in the mix here and lyrical, but it’s not nearly his best contribution. He also served as the packaging designer, and I’ve got to say that the CD booklet that comes with Number 4’s jewel case is the best I’ve ever seen from a Portland band, and right up there with anything nationally or internationally. It’s like he graphically depicted every one of Brahms’s rough edges and toothy smiles.

There’s a fair amount of Brahms history, here, actually, including the soothing and sanguine “We’re All Okay,” with just Brahms on guitars and multiple vocal tracks, from 2001’s GFAC 207, Vol. 2. And I’ve got to assume the instrumental “Slide Song 1993” is what it says it is. Actually, with the tape hiss and metallic whine, it’s hard to tell it’s a guitar at some points; often it sounds more like a humpback whale’s mating call. In a good way.

I think the single here is “Sweet Little Darling,” which opens with a toy piano and Ginger Cote’s bass drum building in. Though she’s often aggressive or languid, Brahms here is in baby doll mode, a great ’60s rock pop take, with a cool electric guitar move in the chorus: “You’re my sweet little darling, sweet little darling, sweet little darling, yeah.” It’s delectable and irresistible, so pretty and electric in its appeal. Dave Noyes on the cello late is a great move forward, joining himself in the finish with the melodica, one instrument in each channel.

I guess after five years of work, it shouldn’t be surprising that the album is both dense and expertly organized, with a fun-with-samples take in the middle for disconcerting comic relief in “Kitty’s Trapped in the Well,” and a special “bonus track” you might remember from the last presidential season: “Too Late for Whitey.” There’s variety here in genre, but the nakedly raw emotion is just about universal.

In the Rolling Stones rocker “I’m So Afraid,” Brahms is as honest and bare as any kindergartener, a naked accounting of fears: “I’m so afraid of losing my job/ I’m so afraid of being robbed/ Being raped/ No escape/ Being bored/ And flipping out on the Doors/ Love me two times baby.” It’s compressed into a perfect 1:59 track that finishes with this admission: “I’m so afraid of God falling down … I’m shaking baby and it’s not from love/ It’s from fear.”

The horse whinny at the finish is strangely appropriate.

Even if Brahms was never really that Little Bundle of Sugar (2000), it’s never been hard to be sweet on her. Now she’s let us closer than ever before and she’s never seemed sweeter. Though maybe she’s a hard candy.

And she probably wants to punch me in the face for that “sweet” nonsense.

North of Nashville: North of Nashville

Enter the Working Man

The outlaw country of North of Nashville

I know: Why do you need a North of Nashville album when they’re probably playing nearby as you read this? There is unquestionably no paucity of North of Nashville. But if frontman Jay Basiner hasn’t won you over by the end of a four-set gig on the back porch of Brian Boru or in the bar at the Rack after a day of skiing, then you’re probably something of a grumpy dick. And if Basiner has, indeed, worked his charm, taking home the duo’s debut, self-titled full-length is an appropriate way to say thanks.

Nor will you regret the purchase. These are easy songs to like and if you throw them into a mix of tracks from Highwaymen like Willing, Merle, Kris, and Johnny they’ll filter comfortably in and provide a few new songs from a genre that’s mostly petered out. Whatever might still be left of “outlaw country” has mostly become the kind of overproduced pap that manages to find Tim McGraw pumpin Lil Wayne on his iPod and guys with open shirts and shaved chests playing brand-new acoustic guitars in front of spotless pick-up trucks.

That sure as hell isn’t Basiner and partner-in-crime and mostly fiddle player Andrew Martelle. Basiner has just about worn his guitar out, a la Willie, and Martelle is a top-drawer fiddle player, leaning on this record more toward Charlie Daniels than Vassar Clements. Most of all, though, they make their stories of blue collar work and simple pleasures both believable and endearing.

It’s hard not to think of outlaw countryman and Maine icon Dick Curless when you come across “The Working Man.” It appears seventh on this crisp 10-song album, but is clearly the band’s anthem. “I have no reservations about getting my hands dirty, night and day,” Basiner announces from the open, and the brand of country that follows – with bass drum and high hat alternating beats to emphasize the boom-chick rhythm (Basiner plays with his feet while strumming the acoustic guitar) and Martelle trading fiddle riffs with Basiner’s harmonica – is as literally workingman as it gets.

[This is their live album. Can’t find an embed of their full-length. It’s on the homepage of their site.]

The chorus lets you know why all that on-stage sweating is worth it: “While they’re running ‘round in circles, this working man will cross the finish line/ And I’ll be eatin’ good come supper time.”

Certainly, it’s true that Basiner has made more of his particular reservoir of talent than many of his contemporaries locally. He has been determined for the better part of a decade to make a career out of music, and he has steadily progressed from doing covers as J. Biddy through the transformation of This Way from blues rockers to alt-country jam band. With Martelle, though, who first joined him in This Way, the pair have managed to turn what was mostly a side project to earn extra cash into a legitimate touring band, leaving This Way, as notable Nashville resident Gillian Welch might say, by the wayside.

Maybe his voice doesn’t deserve a ton of credit for his progress, but Basiner has managed to wrangle it into something serviceable (that sounds worse than I mean it), really reaching down in places like the middle of the chorus of “Eyes for Me” for a Cash-like bass delivery where you can just about hear every vocal chord vibration distinctly. He hits his sweet spot with “One Night of Pretending,” earnest and mid-range, and not so strained that you can virtually see his face turning red, as happens a bit on other tunes.

No, if not hard work, it’s Basiner’s songwriting that deserves the most credit for the warm receptions North of Nashville has lately enjoyed. Obviously, he’s made a study of the Bakersfield sound, early ’70s Nashville, Graham Parsons, the cowboy poets, and the long tradition of acoustic Americana, and it shows up in spot-on choruses, pick-me-up bridges, and narratives that smartly progress and make use of the choruses in differing ways. “Hooked on Me” and “Best of What’s Around” are goofy without being silly or corny; “Dreams Come True (For Awhile)” is heartfelt, with a Jimmy Buffett kind of singalong; and you’ll forgive him for the “a capella” rhyme in “Isabella.”

Plus, their arranging – making smart use of Cartwright Thompson on pedal steel, adding in mandolin parts from Martelle to freshen things up – and the sound capture from Jonathan Wyman combine to create a record with virtually no artifice. It’s easily accessible and does well to capture their on-stage energy without being limited by what they could pull off as a two-man operation. The bass parts tracked in are necessary to fill out the low end, especially in the headphones, and it’s nice sometimes to hear the mando and fiddle together, even if you have to imagine mirrored Martelles.

So go out and see them. It’s not hard to find an opportunity, and you just might come home with a souvenir.