Why does a person spend 20 years in Portland making music, releasing records, and playing shows? Ask Darien Brahms. Her fifth album, Dogwood, celebrates the 20th anniversary of Hello, Hello to the People, a disc (available on iTunes, by the way) that doesn't sound altogether different from what we're hearing today: brassy vocals that can punch you in the gut, vampy strut, a little bit of twang and blues amid the rock, and maybe a ballad to make things girly every once in a while.
Ultimately, most artists keep on keeping on because they don't have a whole lot of choice in the matter. They need that combination of release and response that making music for other people creates, that feedback cycle that can ultimately be both euphoric and heartbreaking. A lot like love.
So it's no surprise that Brahms, here on Dogwood, is like a fickle lover, toying with her audience. Out of the gate, she's "Queen of Porn," aggressive over driving horns (Brian Graham, Lucas Desmond, Dave Noyes), a persistent wood block, and a rocking strut: "Sooner or later, we all fall like Rome." But by the following "Big Red Flag" she's got a bluesy come-on that's hard not to get on board with: "Oh, take me please, and don't send me back again."
It's that push and pull, that "Jekyll and Hyde" experience of sunshiney guitar in the open, but diving toward melancholy in a hurry. Of a bullfighter prepping for a bout in the ring, but having second thoughts: "you taste like a flower/You smell like a chocolate."
There's a little of that cow-punk some people know Brahms for, and she's brought along Cartwright Thompson for some pedal steel. There's a throwback reggae-flavored track in "Veni Vidi Vici" that's like a modern-day turning of "Sandy" from the Grease soundtrack on its head. "If I neglected to mention," Brahms croons, "I'm the empress of all."
Without doubt. There are any number of us who'd hand her the keys to the city, elect her mayor, and get out of the way. Which makes the whispered, repeating "I fucking love you" in the middle of the just-plain-filthy "Black Eye" so utterly delicious. We fucking love you right back, Darien. Please keep putting an album out every five years so we remember just how much.
Dogwood | Released by Darien Brahms | on Cornmeal Records | at the Big Easy, in Portland | June 22 | darienbrahms.com