Long before self-reflective female singers became the hip trend on the alternative music scene, Beth Brown of Rochester, New York’s Absolute Grey was writing and singing about loneliness and the challenge of independence. What Brown lacked in vocal range, she more than made up for in guts and naked emotion. Green House (aka Greenhouse, a full-length album consisting of six studio tracks and a pair of live numbers, including a cover of the Velvet Underground’s “Beginning to See the Light”) defines the quartet’s garage-pop approach, the bass carrying most of the melodies and the guitar adding color with Peter Buck-like arpeggios. The 1995 20th anniversary edition adds a live disc of mid-’80s vintage.
The denser, darker What Remains, produced by Tim Lee of the Windbreakers, is a humble masterpiece in which Brown alternately deplores her weakness and musters up strength in the face of a failing relationship. The performances are crude, and drummer Pat Thomas sometimes sounds as though he’s being piped in from a different state, but neither can suffocate the album’s intrinsic dignity.
Absolute Grey pared down to a two-piece for most of the Painted Post EP; the four songs on which Brown is accompanied only by Mitch Rasor on bass and acoustic guitar are frighteningly beautiful. Without the competition of a full rhythm section, her voice can be softer and more expressive, and her lyrics articulate pain without ever stooping to self-pity. “Closer Apart,” “Sylvia” and “Abandon Waltz” are touching little adventures into her soul.
A Journey Thru the Past is a live album (recorded in Rochester in 1984) containing all previously unreleased material. In the summer of ’87, all four original members reformed briefly and cut another studio record, Sand Down the Moon. Thomas’ first solo album (he’s made several others since, remaining active in the ’90s) finds the drummer instead singing and playing acoustic guitar.
Besides a generous sampling of the band’s records, the two-CD Broken Promise has demos, live tracks and touchingly personal liner notes.
On his own records, Thomas writes and sings semi-confessional folk-rock tunes that show an unforced ’60s influence and an instinctive understanding of his sources. The St. Katherine CD collects eighteen songs from his first two solo efforts plus previously unreleased numbers by a short-lived duo, Minor Characters. The fondness for Van Morrison manifested in St. Katherine‘s wry Moondance-tribute cover art gains resonance with an offhandedly harrowing ten-minute reading of Van Morrison’s epic “T.B. Sheets” that concludes Live in Denmark, Germany and San Francisco. Half of that album finds Thomas backed by members of A Subtle Plague and Slovenly on lightly electric rock tunes; the rest is acoustic folk-blues with a smaller combo.
The more overtly electric Fresh is Thomas’ most consistently satisfying solo release to that point; he spins a variety of his own worthy compositions as well as tunes written by pals Steve Wynn and Chris Cacavas, both of whom play on the album. Initial copies included a six-song bonus disc entitled Get Your Rocks Off: three outtakes from the album sessions and covers of Allen Ginsberg, Bob Dylan and the Jaynetts’ immortally odd “Sally, Go ‘Round the Roses.”
In addition to his solo work, Rasor did one album in collaboration with Chris Brokaw of Come as Snares & Wires.