Greg Brown

Freak Flag

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Greg Brown's best music has always had a loose, casual feel; he reveals more of himself when he sounds like he's not forcing the music than in those rare moments when he's genuinely concentrating on his muse, and he's let his breezy side take the wheel on his 27th album, 2011's Freak Flag. According to Brown, he was well into the recording of Freak Flag when the Minneapolis studio he was using was struck by lightning; Brown and his producer and guitarist Bo Ramsey were using a Pro-Tools digital setup, and the electric surge wiped away nearly all the tracks they'd laid down. Brown's response was to head down to Memphis and start over, where he saved one tune from the previous sessions, and replaced the rest with brand new songs. Freak Flag's title tune, the one holdover from the initial sessions, seems to be a bit more carefully crafted than the eight other Brown originals on board, but overall, the material doesn't seem especially different; these songs find him very much in his element, marrying sly but heartfelt vocals to slinky melodies that split the difference between folky simplicity and bluesy grit (the latter aided considerably by Ramsey's raw, funky guitar work), and telling his tales with wit, intelligence, and a touch of Midwestern zen. Brown and his band cut a comfortable but potent groove when Freak Flag locks in on tunes like "Where Are You Going When You're Gone" and "I Don't Know Anybody in This Town." It's the gentler numbers on Freak Flag that prove problematic; while Brown's voice has always been craggy, on these sessions his register has dropped noticeably, and he tends to wobble uncomfortably while trying to hold a note, and the froggy murk of his vocals rob "Flat Stuff" and "Tenderhearted Child" of much of their power. No one has ever expected Brown to sound like Pavarotti, but here his vocals aren't as strong a vehicle for his songs as they once were. It doesn't seem as if Brown is the least bit worried about this, but Freak Flag is one album where his take-it-or-leave-it attitude starts to fail him, at least as far as his voice is concerned.

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