Nora Brown: deflect my motor
Nora Brown – Sidetrack My Engine
Jalopy Records – 2021
It’s interesting to catch someone early in their music career and listen to their development. I discovered Nora Brown for the first time with her debut album Cinnamon Tree (2019), so it was with great pleasure that I received Sidetrack My Engine. Over the next two years, according to social media, Nora performed where and when she could: online, small gatherings but all the time making the music grow.
Hijack my engine opens with January 8. Jackson Lynch’s violin sets a good beat, and off you go, celebrating the defeat – or rout, depending on which side you were on – of the British in New Orleans on January 8, 1815. As with many tunes, its origin is probably lost in time, but the speed and style give the reel a decidedly American allure. Nora’s banjo is never lost, and while the violin can dominate acoustically, it’s hard to imagine one without the other.
Frankie and Albert, a song of countless variations, known to many as Frankie and Johnny, is a delicately told story of Frankie Baker’s filming of Albert and has appeared in many forms over the past 120 years or so. What stands out most here is Nora’s change of voice. Listening to Cinnamon Tree, it wasn’t easy to pinpoint Nora’s age, but here, two years between recordings and still a teenager, her voice matured. It’s rounder, clearer, and has a sense of worldliness that is often not found in older singers, and yet, at the same time, it lets the words carry the story.
This development is even more apparent in The very day that I left, a beautiful sad song in which she gives herself fully to the emotion with great constraint. You also get the impression that she is savoring the acoustics of the 19th century cellars in which these songs are recorded. The album was recorded by Jon Atkinson in mono, using, for all of us, an Ampex tape recorder and a vintage RCA. ribbon microphones. It all works very well, producing a sound that is just right.
There are also countless songs on Liza jane, but probably not always the same person. This sends us back to a frantic pace, accelerated by the bones playing Jerron ‘Blindboy’ Paxton. Jerron Candy man from the soundtrack of Epic American Sessions the movie is a big favorite in our house, and it’s good to hear other recordings with it.
One essential thing to know about Nora Brown is the amount of energy needed to learn the tunes, then adapt and arrange them to suit the banjo (she has a whole collection of them). And, although she is a Brooklyn resident, seems to spend a lot of time traveling the country, “a rambling woman” when she can, learning from old and young alike. Briggs Hop Light Hornpipe Medley, another duet with Paxton, is an arrangement of 19th century minstrel tunes via Rhiannon Giddens, and so the tradition is passed down from generation to generation. History matters, and with an instrument whose history dates back to Africa, it is not difficult to realize how the ‘racist disdain’ of the time did nothing to preserve the legacy. of those tunes, something Nora is keen to bring to light.
From sourcing to check-in, the high level of attention to detail throughout Deflect my motor is apparent. Nora’s standards are very high; indeed, several tracks were not part of this album but I hope that we will not have long to wait for the next one. Surrounding herself and immersing yourself in the music, the players and the legacy is a wonderful thing, and here we have a beautiful example, yet it’s hard not to remember how old she is. Starting with the ukulele at age 6 and later moving on to the banjo, she seems to have finally given up on the “little” prefix, an important move as she moves from a “child prodigy” to a serious performer, continuing tradition, making it real and accessible to audiences today and adding to our understanding of the history of these tunes.
Sidetrack My Engine is an excellent and accomplished album that marks the next chapter for Nora Brown. More please.
Order via Bandcamp: https://norabrown.bandcamp.com/album/sidetrack-my-engine