The beguiling Pip Brown returns with her first record since 2008, writes JENNIFER PETERSON-WARD.
New Zealand multi-instrumentalist Pip Brown’s self-titled debut was so rich with cathartic pop goodness that it transformed the chronically shy kiwi into one of biggest crossover acts of 2008, earning her two ARIA Awards and loads of critical acclaim in the process. But following the release of that record, Brown took nearly four years off, the only noise being made during a few festival performances at the end of 2010.
“Exhaustion from constant touring” was cited as the reason for the lay-off, as well as her struggle with a mild form of Asperger’s syndrome. Understandably delayed, Anxiety enters an indie music climate far removed from the electro revival of 2008 in which her Ladyhawke hit shelves.
The words “intimate” and “darker” have been referenced in Anxiety’s promotional lead-up, which makes it something of a disappointment that the most Brown can muster on timid opener ‘A Girl Like Me’ are lyrics like, “It’s all down the river for a girl like me/I heard you’re leaving and I’ll never know why.” This is undoubtedly a personal album for Brown, but she sounds guarded here, leaving us to sort through lyrics like, “You will be my vaccine/I will be your in-betweener/We’ll wake up happy/From all our dreams.” Right.
As things progress, however, it becomes clear that Brown isn’t willing to settle for “woe is me” moping. She portrays the full-spectrum of her anxiety: desperately seeking distraction in drugs (“I take a pill to help me through the day,” she offers on the title track); retreating to a fantasy world (“We’re on the night train/To anywhere but here/It takes us far/Into a fantasy/Where all the good things are” on ‘Cellophane’); and even considering violence (“I’d never thought you’d be/The one afraid of me” on ‘Gone Gone Gone’).
“Whatever conflict she’s describing remains merely an abstract notion.”
Brown has long treated songwriting as a personal therapy session; the recording studio as a psychologist’s couch. There was so much of her on Ladyhawke, she needed an alter-ego to get it all out there. On Anxiety, whatever conflict she’s describing remains merely an abstract notion, never an immediate reality: “And it all makes sense when we close our eyes/‘Cause we are looking through pink cellophane,” goes the chorus of ‘Cellophane’.
Brown’s endless supply of off-kilter but instantly appealing melodies only serve to layer her image and influences over something she can call her own. Full to the brim of feverishly infectious choruses that get under your skin and thrash around, the record builds on its predecessor, making the bass a true force and integrating an array of backing vocals and handclaps in a way that is far less grating than in the past.
Producer and long-time collaborator Pascal Gabriel deserves some credit for this transformation. His production isn’t always subtle, but it succeeds in highlighting the right underlying element of a song – whether it’s the extra spice on the electric guitar in ‘Black, White And Blue’ or the continued emphasis on Brown’s icy vocals on ‘Vaccine’. Yet he knows this kind of pop-rock can’t fully outrun cliche, which means Brown can’t either. It’s just party music, after all.
When a record’s been four years in the making, it’s easy to assume that the output has been over-designed, but as a return to the steady Ladyhawke ferocity of old, it’ll no doubt satisfy fans. Brown’s health might hinder her further musical output – and of course no one would deny that her priorities lie in managing that – but perhaps the most reassuring aspect of the record is that she’s still able to share one more piece of her gleefully damaged vision.
‘Anxiety’ is out now through Modular.
Listen to ‘Anxiety’: