Baby, the follow-up to Bosque Brown’s Plays Mara Lee Miller, presents a haunting mix of vocal folk, laid-back percussion and electronic sounds. And to be sure, Bosque Brown — the creation of Mara Lee Miller and producer Chris Flemmons (Baptist Generals) — is a band, not simply the vehicle for the undeniable voice of Miller. The song structures and instrumental textures take this album beyond the range of your typical singer-songwriter troupe. Bosque Brown makes country music for a post-rock era.
Or maybe we could just say Bosque Brown makes post-country music. Miller’s voice has a lilting, lithe quality that puts her in the orbit of fellow Texan Patsy Cline, but there is a modern sense of ennui in her tone. Miller never belts; her voice always seems to be right next to you, intimate. The first song, “White Dove,” immediately catches your ear with a sense of ease and unsettling peace behind a repeated phrase: “on a white dove.” On what is perhaps the “poppiest” song on the album, “So Loud,” Miller effortlessly moves from soft verse stillness into an almost bouncy refrain: “You know I’ve always said it’s my downfall.” Other writers have described Miller’s voice as a mix between Cat Power and Joanna Newsom, but I would say that the major distinction between Miller and those two women is the unaffected ease with which she projects. There are no alarms, no surprises in her delivery.
But that’s not to say this music lacks drama in any way. To take “So Loud” again, a high electronic scrim combines with an understated galloping beat and acoustic guitar to create a sound texture that could only be called alien country. “Went Walking,” as befits its sense of apocalypse, begins sparsely with only acoustic guitar and Miller’s subtly echoing vocals. Then, about a third of the way through, full percussion and piano enter, creating the drive behind the line “drive with the sun in my eyes.” But the voice proceeds to sing a sly, delaying and falling melodic variation of the original verse that seems to fight against the laid back pulse of the band (this is the most beautiful part of the song). In a few moments, the voice and guitar do shed the band, and we return to the beginning sparse texture. The song seems to end, but it’s a false ending and the band plays on alone, moving forward but going nowhere. This kind of disconnected song structure is strange and fun in itself, but it also works with the sentiment of the song: Can one ever “go home”?
The album’s lyrical concerns — religion, endings and forsakenness — are never inelegantly or flatly stated. Miller has a way of providing a lot of feeling in simple lines. (In “Whiskey Flats” she sings: “They say she don’t they say she don’t talk right,” and it seems to include a whole world of anger and distance.) The arc of the collection might be something like this: beginning hesitation gives way to some sense of recuperation. The white dove transforms into soft love. Something is found. (God? Acceptance? Truth?) However we interpret it, the repetition of sounds and ideas unifies the album.
We could call Baby a concept album, but there is no sense of proggy pretension here. It’s just a well-sung, darkly sweet and emotional set of sounds.