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Rachel Taylor Brown: 'Mette in Madagascar'

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It's been a strange ride for singer Rachel Taylor Brown: a nervous breakdown, eight years of solitude living as a hermit, an endless struggle with both loving and hating humanity. It's the kind of fear and anguish that can drive someone deep into their own mind. But Brown looked outward at a troubling world and discovered some of the haunting, humorous and ultimately beautiful songs that appear on her latest CD, Half Hours With the Lower Creatures.

Brown has a gift for channeling her inner demons into a mesmerizing world of sound, and much of what makes Half Hours work was found in the studio. Ambient field recordings lay the backdrop for distant, ethereal harmonies, toy pianos, guitars on overdrive and various swirling effects. Many of the tracks would be simple, piano-driven pop songs if they weren't so distorted and deconstructed beyond recognition.

But Brown is ultimately a lyrical storyteller and spends the bulk of her time mulling over grand themes like war, religion, greed, power and what she calls "disastrous human hierarchies."

"Mette in Madagascar" is the album's most upbeat and even majestic track. Brown opens with a simple, bouncy piano line that eventually builds, erupts into total chaos, and nearly spins out of control before coming back to earth.

"'Mette' is about my own great great aunt who was something like 100 when I was a kid and who was one of the first missionaries to go to Madagascar," says Brown. "She really did used to write me letters. I'm trying to contrast the sweet little old lady with the damage done in the world by such sweet little old ladies and nice people. We all think we're just helping. That impulse to tell others what's best for them, even if it means tearing their country apart, seems scarily alive in America."

Following eight years holed up in her Portland, OR home, Brown first stepped outside in 2001 to record her debut album, Do Not Stare. A local painter/musician had overheard her playing and offered to help record her music. Brown followed with Jonah Days in 2005 and Seven Small Winter Songs in 2006.

For her latest effort Brown has help from guitarist Chris Robley, bassist Arthur Parker, drummer John Stewart and violist Ben Landsverk.

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Robin Hilton
Robin Hilton is a producer and co-host of the popular NPR Music show All Songs Considered.