Erinn Brown

Erinn Brown
Road Signs To The Sun

Right Coast Records

By Bill Copeland
July 2007

It has been eight years since Erinn Brown released her debut CD Road Signs To The Sun. Distracted by personal matters that cropped up during preparations for her release party, Brown never had a chance for what my British grandfather used to call, "a proper go at it."

Looking back at this CD in 2007 with the objectivity of hindsight, Road Signs proves to be a remarkable, if overlooked, gem in a sea of Boston music scene releases.

A collection of eight original heart-felt songs and two covers that breathe new life into music by Joni Mitchell and John Prine, Road Signs forces us to think about what might have been. If only this singer-songwriter, who resembles a cross between Nora Jones and Cindy Crawford, got the proper record company backing.

On this release, Brown wasted no time, jumping into emotive musical timbres. In opener "Choir Of The Birds," each chorus received a lithe, stealthy, bounce from her pleasant vocal melody. A gentle approach stirs the emotions in this tune about family memories. That same gentle hand also pushes the tune forward without ever becoming heavy handed. Brown, proving herself a natural songbird, wraps her voice around verse and chorus, performing seamless vocal gymnastics without pretension.

Her jaunty organ and Rhodes piano-based "I Can’t Stick Around" rolled along with confidence. An affirmation of a woman’s newfound self-confidence, Brown sang about the need to move lovingly beyond a pleasant but temporary relationship. The instruments here are cleverly arranged, giving this mid-tempo blues-rocker enough snap, crackle, and pop to keep tugging at my ears.

"Towards The Sun" is another Brown song about moving on, a song as moving as it is engaging. The timeless metaphor of sunlight as love from another to help one’s growth gets a fresh twist when Brown extends the metaphor into needing new soil to plant her roots. Employing unique songwriting patterns, the songstress expresses emotional tension with unexpected twists in rhythms and melodies. With ranging vocal ability, Brown keeps setting the bar higher and with an Olympian poll vault, and propels herself over each time, hitting all the right notes and dodging all the expected pitfalls.

After bringing a fresh vibe to John Prine’s well traveled bar band cliche "Angel From Montgomery," Brown tackles the emotional challenge of "I’m Not One To Just Give Up," a poignant and personal reflection of a roller coaster relationship that left two tattered souls tip-toeing around in each other in a time of mutual, frustrated need. Although the relationship was confusing, musical sense is made of the trauma, with cello bringing in mournful tones, and criss-crossing rhythms underscoring the whirling experience Brown had written of. Brown’s vocal pulls the emotions out of each verse and hand delivers them.

Giving the listener a pause from her ordeals, Brown eases into her song of courage and hope, "Don’t Run Away." Up-tempo and more electric guitar driven than the rest of the album, Brown travels into a faster vocal lane without ever stopping to catch her breath. "Don’t Run Away" is also a noteworthy examination of courage and self-discovery: "And I noticed when she laughed/Her courage was real/That’s the same satisfaction/That I wanna feel."

My personal favorite is "Foghorn." Written by Brown during her days in Marblehead, when on every quiet night she could hear a distant foghorn, the song reflects a struggle to survive. A lighthouse, its foghorn, and the ocean, become metaphors that the songwriter crafted into a image-laden tale closer to poetry than lyric: "He holds his heartache behind the bars of his mind/Swimmin’ in a tangled net of regret/He thinks that he really tried."

There’s a lot going on in "Foghorn." The opening verse lulls us into a false sense of security, as its warm full sound implies a feeling of affection. On the last word in verse one, Brown, with sudden shift in vocal tone, spins the song into a darker, edgier world. Her swift spins on one word often remind me of an amusement park scary house ride. The electric cart carries me past through swinging doors and rides a few feet before abruptly turning into a row of frightening displays. Bringing her listeners right where she wants them like that is the gift of a true performer.

"Don’t Want What You Can’t Have," written mostly by her collaborator John Donelan, finds her once again wrapping her voice around her band’s jaunty rhythms, suggesting a jazz vocal background. With enough peaks and valleys for a run ride, Brown’s mellifluous alto rides these highways, giving her verses that silky sound only a special singer can.

The saddest song on the album, "Boston SnowTime,’ finds Brown reminiscing about a warm moment in a failed relationship. A change in seasons reminds her it is getting closer to a month of pleasant memories, and the feelings casts over her brings in a flood of other memories. A moody cello and gentle tinkling on a Rhodes make the perfect contrast to Brown’s warm and affectionate vocal. While the music stirs the sadder feelings, Brown, with canny vocal inflection, plays the role of respectful narrator, looking back without bitterness or hurt.

Brown closes out her disc with Joni Mitchell‘s ode to letting someone go. "Urge For Going," in Brown’s hands, meets the first requirement of a new twist - a slow rock beat. Brown is not afraid to show her influences, having the courage to invite comparisons to a singer with one of the most beautiful voices in modern recorded music. Listeners can also trace Brown’s influences and see where she has taken them.

Brown was not flying solo on Road Signs Her long time collaborator, John Donelan, aside from playing electric guitar, arranged the cello melodies and contributed to the songwriting on two numbers. Bass player Mike Rivard (Club D’elf), 12-string player Dan Drayer, Hammond organ and Rhodes piano player Dave Limina, drummer Larry Finn, and cellist Daniel Rowe provided Brown the best possible wall of sound.

There is much to enjoy on "Road Signs To The Sun." The voice is beautiful. The musicianship is exceptional. The songwriting is respectable. Brown missed a grand opportunity for self-promotion when she released this album in April 1999. Her music career was unavoidably halted by circumstances beyond her control. Yet, there remains an opportunity for people to explore the music she created at a time when her creative growth was at a high level of inspiration. One can only look forward to the album Brown is currently working on.

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