Nick Brown trades lots of smart-assed banter with his bandmates when playing bass in Madison-based country act Brown Derby. Those who've enjoyed the band's playful honky-tonk at the Crystal Corner Bar might not expect to find a nuanced persona and quiet arrangements on Brown's first solo album, Slow Boat. He'll celebrate its release Friday, Jan. 11, at the High Noon Saloon.
Brown is even a little surprised that plaintive moments outweigh wisecracks on the album.
"I'm funny as shit, but I get criticized by people I know really well for being so serious and writing such downer songs all the time," he says.
Indeed, the narrator of opening track "Living That Way" contemplates his self-destructive existence as if he just can't help his bad habits: "I throw my money off the backs of trains/And I don't understand not living that way."
Since Slow Boat is a country-influenced album, it's inevitable that sadness will give way to humor a few times. "Light Beer and Heavy Hearts" channels the terse cleverness of classic-country drinking songs, but Brown finds a more distinctive approach on "Factory Farms." In lyrics one immediately feels guilty for laughing about, Brown catches you up on some idealized figures who've fallen into disgrace, including Barbie: "She married Ken at 22/He beats her up and buys her shoes."
Still, what emerges from Slow Boat isn't some quirky conceit but a songwriter carefully trying out different types of songs and personas.
"One of the things I really like about singer-songwriters is that blurry line between the songwriter and the narrator," Brown says.
On "Melanie," he even grapples with a type of tune he's ambivalent about: the murder-story song. The first-person lyrics are based on a murder case Brown covered as a newspaper reporter in New Hampshire. As a listener, he usually doesn't gravitate toward such songs.
"All kinds of folksingers write songs like that, but it's just a lot of information," he says.
The album uses no drums, save for some lightly brushed snare. Brown's voice dominates the mix, along with his acoustic guitar and the Telecaster and pedal steel of Brown Derby lead guitarist Andrew Harrison. Brown's vocal tone is both rugged and silky, sounding equally confident in the beaten-down baritone of "I Will Be Gone" and the flirtatious lilt of "Play That Song."
Brown used some of his studio time at Madison Music Foundry to create swaying, charming background vocals, especially on "Slow Boat." The album's liner notes cheekily credit these vocals to "the Brownaires," shorthand for Brown overdubbing himself.
"It adds a kind of depth that you don't hear as much," Brown says. "The Jordanaires were a backing band that played with a lot of country people and Elvis, and they do all that 'aah-aah-oh' stuff."
Beyond that, the album indulges in few sonic luxuries, except for handsome mixing and mastering (by Landon Arkens and Dustin Sisson, respectively) and some vocals from Count This Penny's Amanda Rigell.
"I think, by contract, she has to sing with everyone in town," Brown jokes, noting how quickly Count This Penny have befriended local musicians since arriving in Madison.
In addition to singing a duet with Brown on "Hand in Hand" and harmonizing on a couple of other songs, Rigell often covers Brown's "Living That Way" during Count This Penny's live sets.
Friday's show will reflect some of Slow Boat's sparseness but eventually depart from it. Brown plans to start off solo acoustic and gradually add members of a newly assembled live band, including Rigell and Harrison, until there are as many as eight people onstage. The set will incorporate Slow Boat songs, covers and a few new tunes, he says.
Brown's also looking forward to starting another project that'll play some upbeat, rocking songs he's been saving up.
"The older I get, the bigger this place is in my heart for really stupid, simple rock," he says. "I would love to play on a worst of Bad Company album, or something like that."