In Memory of Andrew Duncan Brown

(Author’s Note: I originally wrote the article below on January 8, 2013 for echocloud.tv, but the link there no longer works. In light of yesterday’s news concerning Andrew’s death in France, I thought the best way to pay tribute to his life would be to share a celebration of his music. After I wrote this article, Andrew introduced me to his father who gave me some of the greatest compliments I’ve ever received on anything I’ve ever written, it was a truly touching moment. I was also touched when on his Facebook music page, under “Description” for his music, he simply linked to this article. We will all miss you Andrew, you were a much beloved angel in our music community.)

I’m not going, to lie, Andrew Duncan Brown and Smoking Pirate Records have been trying to get my attention for a while.  I don’t know when this started, but I am damn glad that they’ve been persistent in this endeavor, because when I heard this album in its entirety last month, I was pretty blown away. First of all, the songwriting and lyricism immediately struck me, the production by Bob Hoag was well beyond his usual range and the content itself touched me in a very personal, sentimental way.  The album also happens to include some of my favorite musicians from around town including Mitch Freedom, Steve Limpert,  Jes Pruitt, David Libman, Kirk “Judge” Karman, Jason Messer, Jessica Perry, Gerald Schoenherr, Punky McDaniels and Hoag himself—this is kind of an all star affair, supporting a much deserved songwriting talent. Andrew Duncan Brown’s debut is a work carved from the desert that created it, that invites one to the cold nighttime and drenches you in a million shades of blue, it takes you through an odyssey of the songwriters mind and how the artist experiences life as music and poetry and how the three are really indivisible upon close analysis. At once heavy and light, bright as day or dark as night, Andrew Duncan Brown’s debut outshines many stars you might find in the sky and carries with it a true poet’s insight.

The album starts off on a stark, nearly harrowing beginning with a deeply southwestern haunting of a song called “Auto Pilot.” It is Brown with his guitar, his hypnotic  voice and some sparse foot stomping, “Auto Pilot been taking over my mind, never can be quite sure if you’re on the right flight,” is a devastating start, the ending is no less metaphorical, introspective and thought provoking with, “Auto Pilot can ruin my world and it’s like some manipulative girls, when you see things ain’t right, don’t fight just take it to your mind, but I’m still going…I will never, ever follow you again, let’s just say we used to be friends.” This reminds me of a time I saw Black Rebel Motorcycle Club play some of their songs from Howl acoustically, which brought out the pathos and sagebrush scrub embedded in this songs so much more than their electric versions. Brutal, honest, beautiful, dark.

Building from that, while the southwestern, windblown vibe is no less apparent, “Life On Doubtin’” eases the suffocating reality of the opener, but only slightly. Joined by Mitch Freedom on bass, Steve Limpert on trumpet and producer Bob Hoag on drums and keys, Brown conveys through his vocals and guitar more self-reflective revelations of wrestling matches with his own soul. “Well I spend my life on doubting, spend my time on the road, and I’ve learned I’m scared of those things that help me grow”—aren’t we all? “Get-Up, Get-Down” breaks free of the deep steeped desert blues into real rock territory with three guitars, bass by Jes Pruitt, keys by Hoag and backing vocals by Jessica Perry. Here Brown feels out the realm of indie rock and power pop with tremendous effect. If Oasis had ever recorded a single in the Sonoran desert, it probably would have sounded a bit like this, it’s not nearly as psychologically arresting as the first two tracks, but it’s more physically fun in the sense of drenched layers of sound, literally moving you through the tune.

“I’ll Drink The Blue” returns to deepness of the desert and burns like the technicolor sunsets we get nearly each evening.  The song is a meditation on the color and its many meanings, “because we all get the blues when we’re out and confused,” and “you’ve got to keep your color bright even in the black of night.” Words of wisdom, centered around my own personal favorite color and I live it in all of its hues. Haunting organ by Hoag, bass by Freedom and guitar from Karman all make this an enticing aural treat. The full band treatment , including lap steel by Gerald Schoenherr, clearly makes “Burners” one of the more mesmerizing numbers here. “You can’t place your blame on me,” Brown sings, “If you don’t, you don’t see it being you, those burners come out at night, so don’t try so hard to get home.” At this point in the album, the quality of Brown’s songwriting, lyrical attention and amazing voice coalesce into a consistent sound that soothes the soul as much as they make the mind race.

One of the most clever title for a song I’ve heard in a while, “It’s Not Yes Or No, But Why” is also one of my favorite tracks on the album and something of a centerpiece to the affair—it features only Brown and Karman on harmonica, simplistic, but one with impressive emotional depth. Whether it’s about a friend or a lover, the lyrics, “Go on, get out, do what you want, have fun, you’re going to like it, I know, just move on, get out” are not delivered with rage, but rather soft understanding of someone close who needs to grow. It’s a beautiful perspective and sentiment on independence and urging someone to follow their own vision toward liberty. “My Blue Eyed Son” features Perry, Freedom and Hoag in one of the most sentimental numbers of the entire album and one that chokes me up a bit every time I hear it. Sounding like a very realistic confession to ones child, “Let me take this moment to bring you down,” Brown sings sweetly—strictly speaking this hits me hard, because my own blue-eyed son lives in another country currently and I’d love for him to call. Tears pool in the rims of my eyes ever ytime this songs comes around for me.

We return to another full band treatment on “All That You Need” and it plays very much like a continuation of the previous song, and suddenly themes are finally becoming clear here—which actually makes this album so alluring and consuming—songs connected by themes of loss, separation, love, the color blue, encouraging those you love to seek themselves. It is one of the most understated numbers that pack more power than is suspected in the repeated mantra of the title. “Too Hard To Hide” is a wistful number, featuring nothing more than Brown’s guitar and his voice at its most fragile with Hoag backing him on organ. It comes across as almost a benediction on lost love and something of a spiritual affair, but one gets the sense that Brown is at a time in his life when epiphanies come easy and the night whispers songs to him in his sleep. “I know I screwed up, so where do I begin?” There are all holy moments that changed our lives, whether you subscribe to any religious belief or not.

The final three numbers on the album feature the trio of Brown, Freedom and Hoag only and with great effect. The first song I ever heard from this album was “I Was So Confused” and it picks up where “Too Hard To Hide” left off, reflecting the next day on the previous nights emotional tumult.  Hoag’s keys and orchestrations pour down on the bridge like a cleansing rain for what is simply one of the more fantastic moments on the album, recalling musically what is mentioned lyrically right at the start. Another one of my favorite numbers for sheer beauty and absolute truth in documenting the  human experience of the heart. “Bowlin’ Shoes” would seem out of place if it was for the holy moment and cleansing metaphorical rain of the last two songs, but if you’re paying attention, this is perfectly in place to display the joy of new found beginnings and something of a manic redemption. It’s also a hell of a lot of fun. This is rockabilly Andrew Duncan Brown style and while he sings about being amused it’s hard not to be while listening to this little anachronistic gem. The finale is the daunting “Sway” and an album of this import, of this mental depth could really end no other way, you’re thankful that the levity of “Bowlin’ Shoes” preceded it, but you also would have been disappointed had this album ended any other way. It explores the monotony of our everyday lives and frustrations we find as we float about a life that at times seems incomprehensible from the moments that are both mundane and extreme. It is a magically cerebral end to an album that touches your heart and  soul.

This album makes me love, makes me cry, makes me dance, makes me ache, makes me think, makes me reflect and introspect—these are things about music I love the most. When I spoke to Bob Hoag briefly about this album he made mention that it was one of his recordings he was most proud of and it’s not difficult to hear why. He and the crew at Flying Blanket should be seriously proud of this gem, but most of all Andrew Duncan Brown should feel proud and very nearly righteous about this work of sheer beauty, tears, emotions and thought that is cleverly wrapped up in sagebrush, tumbleweeds and sand. While this album may have been released in 2012, I guarantee that if you give it a few listens, it will become one of your favorites of 2013.

Photo by Joel Ekdahl

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