Spilling the tea of love and reading the leaves has been the leitmotif of Bronwynne Brent’s work for nearly a decade. “I know,” she sighs, folding into a southern drawl, “it’s not like I sit down and try to write love songs, but what else is more important than love?” Lauded by American Songwriter Magazine as “captivating”, Brent’s last release, Stardust, saw her voted Female Performer of the Year twice in a row by Americana UK and called up for television and radio appearances on the BBC. For her latest album, Undercover, the Greenville, Mississippi, native setup shop at Brooklyn’s legendary Daptone Studios. Conjured up with trusted collaborator and producer Johnny Sangster, Undercover is a deep Southern roux, combining simple elements of folk, blues, and jazz into a complex and flavorful brew of truth-imbued Americana.
A multi-instrumentalist, industry veteran behind albums for Maggie Bjorklund and Mudhoney, Sangster brought in Mikey Post (drums) and Benny Trokan (bass) to fill out her sound. In an unlikely combination with Sangster, Post and Trokan, better known as the runaway engine rhythm section behind the 60s revivalist garage-pop of Reigning Sound, lay a thick, soulful foundation for Brent’s folk songs. The result recalls the soul-burners of 1960s Muscle Shoals and country-folk stingers like Bobbie Gentry’s Ode To Billie Joe. “I Know It’s Late” introduces Brent’s deep, soothing voice, and the band’s driving chops, while she sings “I can’t quit a good thing, before my good thing goes bad, everybody knows a good thing when they see it, good things don’t last”. She bookends the album with the empowering “I Walked Away”, declaring “I walked away, I don’t regret a single word I said,'' singing vertiginous high notes over a brain-jangling guitar break and in-pocket backbeat. Undercover sees the once reclusive folk singer from the deep south becoming a bandleader and blues balladeer.
Using her world of experience to poke out small town prying eyes amid a groovy, organ heavy title track, she’s positively funky lamenting old habits on “Walking Relapse.” On a bluesy cover of Chuck Willis’ “Whatcha Gonna Do When Your Baby Leaves You”, Brent celebrates the forward-looking 1950’s artists patented rock ‘n’ stroll. Her interpretation of Belgian crooner Jacques Brel’s “If You Go Away” matches the emotional complexity and sardonic intensity that made Brel himself famous. She discovered the track listening to Nina Simone records, and brought in another frequent collaborator, cellist Barb Hunter, to arrange strings into a symphony strong enough to make it a James Bond theme.
Brent’s deftness for inhabiting the perspective of a wronged lover makes her voice extra poignant on her songs about trauma bonds. “I don’t play the blues,” says Brent, “but I’m definitely singin’ ‘em!” Helmed by Brent’s singular, bold, alchemical voice, Undercover is a ferocious amalgam of American roots music, at once devastating and empowering. It’s Bronwynne Brent’s best recording, made at a studio famous for its soul, by a band known for revitalizing rock ‘n’ roll.