Their Bated Breath: In Technicolor

theirbatedbreath

IN TECHNICOLOR | Miss Emily Brown

January 23, 2010 at 4:11 am 2 comments

LOOKING BACK: MISS EMILY BROWN
Words by David D. Robbins Jr. ©
Album: In Technicolor •  Release Date: Jan. 18, 2010

Miss Emily Brown has done something wonderfully beyond music on her sophomore album, “In Technicolor”. She has given voice to the dead. If there’s one thing to take away from this inventive album it’s this: There’s a whole world of beauty and wisdom to be gleaned from people whose very lives are their legacies. And yes, the past is prologue.

“In Technicolor” is a fascinating concept album based mainly on the World War II journal written by Brown’s grandmother. If you buy the hard-copy CD — you’ll be able to read the short journal entries that inspired some of the songs.

The first track “Septuagesima” begins with the slow thump of a drum machine, like the sound of a heartbeat. It’s only fitting, considering how much of Brown’s love must have gone into these eight tracks. It’s Brown’s fragile vocals, over soft piano, aquatic-sounding organ, and fiddle that gives voice to her grandmother’s story in “Septuagesima”. Her grandmother, Leanora, writes in her journal about her husband who is off doing his wartime duty. Her Saskatchewan-based family were forced to stay in England (for eight years) after war broke out during a holiday trip. Eventually, Leanora becomes a stenographer, one of … “Ninety ladies lined up at typewriters / Three thousand miniature hammers / And now you will report all the long and the short / All the day’s events, even if it makes no sense.”

In the liner notes of the CD are these two journal entries serving as a preface to the song:

  • Sun Jan 28, 1945 – Septuagesima. Full Moon: (No. 38) Eddie’s ‘leave’ finishes to-night, he reports to Trenton to-morrow morning.”
  • Tues April 3, 1945 –– One hundred letters to my darling — and I’m still not home, so I will start again at (No.1) — sent today.”

Each song Brown writes is inspired by something from that era. But the album isn’t all about her grandmother. The second track, “The Diary of Amy Briggs”, tells the story of a nurse in Leeds, UK in 1941 — who worked long hours at a first-aid post.  It’s a song chronicling a piece of oft-forgotten history — a woman’s experience in England during WWII — where many did their parts as nurses, factory workers, clerical workers, teachers and mothers. The third track, “Blackout”, is in part the story of her great-grandfather who worked on Halifax bombers and would ride his bicycle in the pitch of night whenever he was urgently called to work at the aerodome.

So, how does one tell these stories, musically speaking? Well, Brown’s vocals are vintage. Her voice is as sweeping and seductive as on her first album, “Part of You Pours Out of Me” — a title inspired by the famous Joni Mitchell verse from “A Case of You”. Brown is a multi-instrumentalist who speaks through a warm autoharp, backed by the soulful, subtle fiddle of Hannah Epperson and the drum and organ work ofCorwin Fox. The songs range from the minimalist Bjork-like album opener, to folk, to Appalachian-influenced melodies and pretty harmonizing.

One of the loveliest songs, musically and lyrically, is the title track “In Technicolor” — a song about how Brown’s grandmother would go out to the Technicolor movies like“Practically Yours” or go out dancing and listening to jazz with her friend Fern:

“You’re in technicolor, all these shows, it gets me out, I’m glad to go
In dreams you are the wizard all in emerald
You’re in technicolor, all these dreams, the barracks empty, rifles clean
In shows you are the young distracted general
I take a turn, always looking for suitors for Fern
Though it don’t mean a thing to her
He was sunny and sweet, but he had two left feet
It was nothing like dancing with you.”

Two of the strongest tracks are on the latter half of the album: “Ten Years Older” comes full circle, with Brown’s grandmother returning to Ontario after the war. Musically, the song comes full circle too — feeling more modern like it’s counterpart, “”Septuagesima”. Those familiar with the video of “World Traveller” (below) may be happy to know there is now a second version of the song — if you couldn’t get enough the first time around. The album version has a slower, darker intro, and includes a punctuating piano line that adds a new, melancholic weight to Brown’s light vocals and Epperson’s floating fiddle.

This entire album is about human interconnection. It rests in Brown’s image of a rope, tying neighbors together in a blackout so they can better find their way. It exists in her comparison of babies’ connections to their mothers — like mittens on a stringin the song “World Traveller”. It forms between world events and the shaping of Iroquois, Ontario, on “Ten Years Older”. This album, like the world itself, is about how we connect to everything. It is two lovers in one kiss, the clink of wine glasses between best friends, the indissoluble river of the past flowing into the present, and the link between a musician’s songs and a truly humbled listener.

Note on the CD: It’s nice to see attention to detail even outside the music itself. Not only is the hard-copy CD cover well designed (colorful snowflake doily) — but the typography on the cover is set in a typewriter font — which would remain true to the era and adds a nice touch to the lyrics in the first track. Very cool.

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