Radio-friendly country music has its preferred themes, as well as those topics which it isn’t so keen on discussing. Drinking (without consequences)? Flawless women in short skirts? Bad boys who don’t know how to love right? Sure. But mental illness? Flawed characters who make everyday life mistakes and have to deal with them? Not so much. Americana, however, has often pushed beyond those boundaries. Progressive politics, sobriety, accountability? We can talk about all of those things – it’s the stuff that makes us human. Mary Bragg’s latest album, Violets as Camouflage, is packed with songs that address the average, imperfect human being in all of us.
The album starts with “I Thought You Were Somebody Else” (written with Bill DeMain), a good ol’ fashioned country torch song. It’s not so much a case of mistaken identity – “You stop me, it hits me/I’ve gone and made a fool of myself” – as it is a misread on personality – “A lover, a liar/I guess you can never tell.” Bragg’s voice is perfectly suited to this kind of regretful weeper.
The next song, though, brings a twist in tradition. “A Little Less” (written with Jon Weisberger) is a reminder of all the things that make getting over a relationship so painful: walks by the river, dancing, “The records we played, I’ve put them away/‘Cause I can’t stand those standards no more,” and the sadness is emphasized with some mournful fiddle. But the dagger comes a little later on: “Three shots in a row, if you must know/Does the trick to forget that I’m the one to blame.” Wait – what did she do? Now I want to know! Later in the album, “Fool” (written with Rachel Taylor Popadic) portrays someone who’s a little further on in the recovery process, but still missing her lover and hoping to appeal to his sentimentality during a reunion: “But I thought I might still have a chance if you were here/In the same old back corner booth.” Again, we learn that she ended it: “I’m such a fool/For saying it was over, I take it back.” It’s rather unusual for a female singer to have her characters so firmly in the romantic wrong. And it’s humanizing.
Not that women do all the screwin’ up on Violets as Camouflage. “Fight”, a duet with Robby Hecht, features a couple too busy arguing to listen: “If you run from me, and I run from you/The lies we believe will all come true.” Eventually, the fight will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Sad, but the gorgeous vocals and acoustic guitar that seems to be pulled from the “This Is Us” soundtrack will pull you in. Bragg can get more than a little flirty, too. “Trouble Me Anytime” (written with Steve Seskin) finds the singer pushing a friend to take things a little further: “So don’t hesitate, I’ll leave the light on, you know where I hide the key/Don’t worry about it, whatever the hour, it’ll be alright with me.” Courting danger? Maybe a little. But it’s fun, too.
“Fixed” (written with Ali Sperry) is thematically a cousin of Brandi Carlile’s epic, “The Joke”, and not at all in a rip-off-y way. Rather, it encourages young women to ignore the mean girls who might bully them into homogeneity: “Skip the fairytale wish/You don’t need to be fixed.” But “This Feeling” (written with Caroline Spence) treads truly rare ground in any genre of music – depression – and does so sadly and beautifully. Over acoustic guitar, Bragg sings, “I could try to explain but there’s no use/And it didn’t help when I blamed it on you.” But the electric guitar that’s been bubbling under erupts in a ragged solo as she cries, “It’s a slow steady rain/Keeps calling my name.” Bragg trails off while repeating, “This feeling, this feeling.” It’s a feeling that doesn’t go away.
Violets at Camouflage was produced and recorded by Bragg at Print Shop Baby Studios in Nashville (drums recorded by Jordan Perlson at Saw Room Recording in Nashville). The album was mixed by Eric Fritsch at Eastwood Studios in Nashville and mastered by Jim DeMain (assisted by Amy Marie) at Yes Master Studios in Nashville. Additional songwriters include Robyn Collins, Jilian Linklater, Adam James, Jesse Terry, and Lauren Shera. Musical contributions come from a veritable Americana all-star team: Rich Hinman (acoustic, electric, and pedal steel guitar), Jimmy Sullivan (upright and electric bass), Jordan Perlson (drums), Anthony da Costa (acoustic and electric guitar) Kristin Weber (violin), Lydia Luce (viola, and this former orchestra geek is a sucker for a good viola player), Eric Fritsch (electric guitar and organ), Jonathan Schwabe (synth bass), and Kyshona Armstrong and Becky Warren (vocals).