As the daughter of rock and roll nice guy Joe Brown and the superb vocalist Vicki Brown, Sam Brown was always going to be a rather special talent. But rather than take the gilt edged pop route that could have easily opened for her after the hit single ‘Stop’ she took the financially less rewarding decision to be a serious musician and songwriter. Top of just about everyone’s list when a female voice is needed for a solo album she has also carved out a nice little sideline in guest appearances on the albums of some of rock musics finest. The worlds greatest rock keyboard player Jon Lord from Deep Purple needed a lyric and female voice for one of his solo albums and remarked that he never even considered anyone else such is her genius at crafting a melody and a deep but accessible lyric.
By the time “Box” was released in 1997 Brown had two successful pop albums and a few hit singles under her belt and really should have been at the forefront of the British arm of the Lilith Fair style of songwriter performers that were taking the world by storm. However her record companies attitude towards her third album “43 Minutes” which had been written around the time of her mothers death and was a dark, but nonetheless wonderful, album had slightly disillousioned her.
As you can see from the cover photo Brown was doing things her own way by 1997 and the glamour of the “Stop” and “April Moon” artwork is long gone and replaced with an image of a strong minded woman who is in charge of her own destiny and isn’t going to have some suit from a record company putting her in any box. Hence the title track.
The main difference between this album and the early ones, apart of course from the lack of saccharine tinged pop is that this actually sounds more like a band than a solo artist and attitude and energy just leaps out at you right from the word go. What sets Brown aside though is that none of this comes at the expense of melody and carefully crafted lyrics. Lyrically there is some great stuff in here and anyone who is going to use words like ‘twixt is going to get a nod of approval from the lexicographical part of me.
“Box” gets under way with the title track and as soon as it starts your attention is grabbed by the jazzy riff which punctuated the song throughout. Brown’s smoky velvety voice, which is possibly one of the most instantly recognisable voices in music, caresses your ears with its beauty even when it is delivering a vocal full of angst and ‘Box’ possibly features the most beautifully sung expletive in the history of recorded music. The track is not all about Brown though as there are some great musical touches going on underneath and behind the vocal. I’ll say it again but this has the feel of a band not just a solo artist.
‘Ebb and Flow’ has a hypnotic keyboard melody, some swirling Hammond and a tribal rhythmic drum beat behind a simple but pleasing vocal which leads perfectly into one of the albums highlights ‘Whisper’. This may well have the best melody on the album and has to be close to being the best recording of Brown’s career, at least to these ears. Displaying all of her vocal abilities it finds a place in your musical mind and just point blank refuses to leave as is subliminally suggested by the lyric.
The quality bar doesn’t drop for the following ‘I Forgive You’ which may well be the best known song on the album as it was co-written with Maria McKee and included on her album “You Gotta Sin To Get Saved”. Again Brown displays both ends of her talent from the powerful to the beautifully tender. The end part of the track with the choir is nothing short of brilliant. Structure wise it reminds me of the Ragavoy/Berns classic ‘Piece Of My Heart’.
‘They’re The One’s’ takes us back to the almost protest/angst of the opener and again the tribal drum breat drives the song along nicely whilst Browns voices dances and flits around it in a mixture of styles. As the song build it turns into a full blown rock track with some great instrumentation towards the end. This could be a rock band jamming out with the Hammond of Claire Nicolson battling away with Richard Newman’s drums. Top quality stuff.
‘Liberty in Reality’ features another great Brown lyric and once again the musicianship is of the highest order. Brother Pete, who also handled production, on guitar and bass player Aaron McRobbie playing their part as much as the aformentioned Nicolson and Newman. Add to that a guest appearance on percussion by Jim Capaldi and you’ve got a great fast paced track.
Things slow down considerably for ‘Embrace The Darkness’ which is classic Brown with its haunting melody, deep lyric and dramatic piano. It builds from the gentleness of the beginning into a powerful false ending before slipping back to a gentler climax. ‘T.O.E.S (The Obligatory Earth Song)’ also starts of with a soft, almost jazz like piano intro as Brown warns of the anger of Mother Nature. The fact that a song warning of such doom can be delivered with such a gentle and wonderful melody without appearing ridiculous is testament to Brown’s ability as a songwriter. The anger and feeling of danger being saved for the musical passage works perfectly and gives the meaning of the lyric more chance to work into your mind than if it had been deliverd in a more menacing way.
‘Intuition’ is a mid paced piano led track which features a big radio friendly chorus although it once again has a rock feel to the instumental passage. It may be one of the weaker tracks on offer here but it is still far too good to be mentioned in the same breath as filler.
‘As The Crow Flies’ has another jerky jazz like beat and riff and another big infectious chorus. Once again it gives the musicians on the album a chance to shine and a certain Mr Capaldi pops up again with some great extra percussion. ‘What’s The Use’ is another jazz rock sounding track musically with Brown delivering a fast and in places almost snarling vocal. This is about as far removed from ‘Stop’ as you could possibly get and is an absolutely wonderful track that many a rock band could do worse than cast an envious ear towards. My only criticism of it is that it could have easily been extended beyond its brief sub three minute duration and turned into something far more substantial. The album ends with ‘Bert and Flo’ which is basically a slower two minute reprise of ‘Ebb and Flow’ leading into the sound of a stylus coming off a record at the end.
Those that know me know of my love of the female singer songwriter and Sam Brown has always been right up there in the top echelon for me with her unique style and phrasing ability. Despite the quality of the early pop albums “Stop” and “April Moon”, and the dark haunting beauty of “43 minutes” “Box”, for me, took Brown on to a new level and despite releasing another couple of excellent albums since in “Reboot” and “Of The Moment” it remains the pinnacle of Brown’s career to date.
© Martin Leedham 2012. First published on RYM April 2012