Thursday, 25 October 2012

Greg Brown - Hymns To What Is Left

Baritone Brown

One of my all-time favourite song narratives is Greg Brown’s Ina Bell Sale from his 2000 Over and Under album. Its surreal and wickedly comic storyline is bolstered by the gravitas of Brown’s baritone and the disturbing Bo Ramsey guitar soundscapes. It is a lyric I have used to stimulate students’ creative writing, telling the reader Ina Bell’s side of her story. Just for the fun of it, here it is to read, and I do encourage an actual listen,

InaBell is dead, Savior, and we pray that Thou wouldst give us the strength
to lift her and carry her to her grave. InaBell is dead, and, Jesus, we'll
never again hear her gravel-on-the-window voice, her tail-in-the-door
voice. We'll never again see her goiter shake like an old apple in a
windstorm. InaBell is dead and gone home to Thee, oh Precious
Lord. Welcome her with open arms and spread 'em wide. She's dead, oh
Precious Lamb, we're sure of it this time. She went over in her kitchen
with a thud, scattering her Chicken Surprise for her ill-tempered, little,
pop-eyed, slobbering dog, who ate most of it. InaBell is dead and gone and
left us here to carry on and carry her big, fat, annoying ass out to the
grave and bury her deep so she won't get up even in dreams to HOLLER HER
INABELL!. I bet she was hard to lift, even for Thee.

InaBell is dead. She killed her husband, poor old Pete. She screamed and
hollered him to death with her helium woodpecker voice, pulled at him and
yelled at him and hit him and screamed at him until he had fits and slapped
his own face and talked in tongues (talks in tongues) at the dinner

There's a big sale on Tuesday. Big sale on Tuesday, who will buy her angry
purse, forty pounds of frozen pot pies? Who will buy her stiff hairnets
for failed perms, her fly-speckled glasses? Who will buy her girdle that
didn't? Who will buy her hippo bra, and her nylons that woulda fit
pylons? Hey!
who'll give me sumpin' for this SHIT?! Who'll buy the little plastic
church that used to light up, the busted pink hairdryer, and half a carton
of menthol cigarettes? Who will buy her cracked bowling ball and enough
knickknacks to sink the Titanic?! Who will buy her sidewalk made out of
storm doors and cardboard and a blown Pontiac full of sparrows and
saplings? Oh, who will buy? Who will buy? Step right up! Who will
buy? Who will buy? Who will buy?

Put a big ol' stone on top of her that says, "InaBell finally shutup and
kicked the bucket!" Big sale on Tuesday.

This is by way of a lengthy preamble for a quick reference to Brown’s latest release Hymns To What Is Left. The baritone is now at times more full of gravel than it ever was, and this won’t appeal to everyone’s tastes. But it is distinctive, and the Ramsey production continues to add able support and atmosphere, for example on the haunting slide of second track Besham’s Bokerie which startles – and I mean really startles – as Brown sings in a fulsome falsetto. Another great and beautiful track is All Of Those Things. Brown continues his knack of mixing the sublime with the ridiculous, and this lovely track is followed by the humorous Fatboy Blues, a poetic encapsulation of obesity: I looked down and I couldn’t even see my shoes - Houston we have a situation and I have got the fatboy blues; and later I am the Walrus.

The title track is another one graced by Brown’s baritone at its smoothest, talking best, with Ramsey supporting Greg’s simple acoustic guitar with his own slide and reverb. Moments like these will stop you in your tracks for a mesmerised listen. Indeed the clutch of four songs HTWIL, Good To You, On The Levee and Hanging Man are consummate in their measured, poetic storytelling with Brown’s wonderfully dominant vocal and Ramsey’s subtle guitar echoings. 


  1. Will hunt down Ina Bell-intrigued and bemused by this one!

  2. Found Ina Bell-bloody brilliant!

  3. I'm glad you have - it is a wild story. Not perhaps for year 7 though....! Brown's delivery and the musical soundscape genuinely set the bizarre scene.