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Columbia’s Marshall Brown re-emerges, anchoring his psychedelic weirdness with taut themes

Awake Again

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The cover art for Marshall Brown's "Ay Es Em Ar." Provided

For a little while there, it seemed like Marshall Brown did nothing but live and breathe his own distinctive and increasingly accomplished vision of the ’60s psychedelic singer/songwriter tradition, updated in a way only he could imagine.

Starting in 2010 after the dissolution of his band The Reverie, Brown started painstakingly crafting solo albums on his eight track digital recorder, piling on layers of instruments and sound in the service of lush, dreamy musical journeys on which his strong, blustery voice could burst into and twist around with quirky grace.

The process was laborious. But, even with Brown attending to all but a handful of parts himself, the singer-songwriter and budding DIY recording savant dropped four full-length albums over the course of six years. Each expanded his vision and refined his recording chops.

Then, following 2015’s Second Childhood, Brown mostly went quiet.

“I feel like getting older, even that plays a factor in it,” Brown shrugged to Free Times. “A lot of that period, I was kind of in this mode where I was always writing new stuff, building up new materials for the next project while I was recording the [current] project.”

A job change and a steady relationship led to “kind of a groove” that disrupted the steady creative state.

“A lot of my material always comes when I'm just out of a relationship,” he offered. “I don't know if it's just because the freedom of just having more time to write or what. It sounds so cliche, but I also think there's something in just being happy and complacent. Maybe it doesn't feed my artistic energy.”

In the last six months though, Brown has returned with a flurry of activity, dropping two EPs, one of which was a collaborative effort with Dylan Dickerson (Dear Blanca) and Brett Nash (Secret Guest), as well as a new full-length, “Ay Es Em Ar,” released last month.

The music on the new album has been in the works for the past two years. The final finishing touches include a gorgeous string quartet section played by Catherine Hunsinger (Rex Darling) and Kristen Harris (Boomtown Trio, Resonant Rogues) that was finished in the past few months.

And while his past records often sprawl and digress in wonderful ways, there’s a taut thematic and musical conciseness to the new album. The Beatles have always been a constant touchstone for Brown, but he’s now harnessing the relative stateliness of their sound and melodies as much as the wild-haired psychedelia and flights of fancy.

This sense of purpose comes through quite clearly in the lyrics.

“It’s about feeling like something is reaching in and taking something away from your life,” Brown explained. “The beginning of the album is kind of addressing an issue that's there, and then midway through with ‘Changing of the Guard,’ it becomes about trying to make changes and trying to pull myself out of a funk.”

Just before that song is a spoken word interlude, a kind of riff on Radiohead’s “Fitter. Happier” that features two robot voices discussing mental health. One cheekily quotes an inspirational passage from Brown. Befitting the artist’s DIY and retro aesthetics, the robotic voices were played on an iPhone into a microphone.

The sleep theme that preoccupies those first few songs carries through to the second side as well, with a more dream-like sense of discovery and appreciation. The overall cohesive feel and thematic consistency were important to Brown, which is why the 4-song EP that preceded the album came out separately.

“Those were songs that I recorded at the same time, but they didn't really fit on the album,” he said. “You know, it's only a 35-minute record. That was a decision I had to make. I could have been like, you know, let's put one or two more songs on here, fill it out and make it a longer record, but I just felt like it was unnecessary.”

That means there are plenty of songs left to work on for Brown, who also is hoping to start playing live more as things open back up.

“I'm practicing up, trying to get my [live] legs back,” he asserts. “I'm really thinking that I'm going to be that prolific again for the next few years.”


On The Reel S2 E16: Marshall Brown

June 21. 8 p.m. Free. facebook.com/onthemarcstudio.

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