Nora Brown – Sidetrack My Engine
Jalopy Records – 2021
It's interesting to catch someone at the beginning of their musical career and hear their development. I first came across Nora Brown with her debut album Cinnamon Tree (2019), so I was very happy to receive Sidetrack My Engine. Meanwhile, according to social media, Nora has been playing where and when she can: online, small gatherings, but the music is constantly growing.
Sidetrack my engine opens on January 8th. Jackson Lynch's violin sets the pace, and off we go to celebrate the defeat – or defeat, whichever side you were on – of the British in New Orleans on January 8, 1815. As with many melodies, their origins are probably lost in time, but the speed and style give the role a firmly American feel. Nora's banjo is never lost, and while the violin may acoustically dominate, one is difficult to imagine without the other.
Frankie and Albert, a song of myriad variations known to many as Frankie and Johnny, is a delicately told story of Frankie Baker's shooting of Albert and has appeared in many guises over the past 120 years. What is particularly noticeable here is the change in Nora's voice. When listening to Cinnamon Tree it wasn't easy to tell Nora's age, but here, two years between recordings and still in her teens, her voice has matured. It's rounder, clearer and has a sense of worldliness that is often not found in older singers, while also allowing the words to carry the story.
This development becomes even clearer in The Very Day I'm Gone, a beautiful, sad song in which she fully engages with the emotions with great reservations. It also feels like she's enjoying the acoustics of the 19th century basements where these tracks were recorded. The album was recorded in mono by Jon Atkinson, for all the nerds out there, with an Ampex tape recorder and vintage RCA ribbon microphones. All of this works really well and produces a sound that is just right.
There are also countless songs about Liza Jane, although probably not always the same person. This brings us back at a crisp pace, accelerated by the bone play of Jerron 'Blindboy' Paxton. Jerron's Candy Man, from the soundtrack to the American Epic Sessions film, is a huge favorite in our house and it's good to hear other recordings with him.
One essential thing to know about Nora Brown is the energy it takes to learn the melodies, then match them to the banjo and arrange them (she has a whole collection). And although he lives in Brooklyn, he seems to spend a lot of time touring the country, if possible, a "wandering woman" who also learns from the old and the not-so-old. Another duet with Paxton, Briggs Hop Light Hornpipe Medley is a 19th century minstrel arrangement via Rhiannon Giddens, and so the tradition is passed on from one generation to the next. History matters, and with an instrument that traces its history back to Africa, it's not hard to see that the "racial disregard" of the era did nothing to preserve the legacy of those tunes, something Nora would like to bring in bright.
From procurement to recording, the high level of attention to detail in Sidetrack My Engine is evident. Nora's standards are very high; in fact, some tracks didn't make it on this album, but hopefully we won't have to wait long for the next one. Surrounding yourself and immersing yourself in the music, the players and the heritage is a wonderful thing and here we have a great example, but it's hard not to keep reminding ourselves how old she is. Starting with the ukulele at the age of 6 and later with the change to the banjo, she seems to have finally dropped the "little" prefix, an important step as she changes from the "child prodigy" to a serious artist, continues the tradition and she makes true and accessible to today's audiences and contributes to our understanding of the backstory of these melodies.
Sidetrack My Engine is an excellent and accomplished album that marks the next chapter for Nora Brown. More please.
Order through Bandcamp: https://norabrown.bandcamp.com/album/sidetrack-my-engine