Rachel Taylor Brown and Susan Storm's Ugly Sister and Other Saints and Superheroes

--What if beautiful superhero, Susan Storm, The Invisible Woman, had an envious ugly sister who stumbled upon the sinister advantage of being invisible in her own right, in plain sight?

--What if galaxy-sized supervillain, Galactus, The World Eater, made a surprisingly sentimental deal with Earth to keep it safe from his rapacious appetite and assuage his midlife loneliness?

--Which saint used her power to become so weak, rats nibbled on her where she lay?

Portland, Oregon-based Rachel Taylor Brown isn't your average singer-songwriter. The eccentric "piano creep-pop" composer conceives and writes concept albums about the human condition, chronicling the ugly side of us all while managing to marvel at the beauty and good in us, too.

With 2008's "Half Hours With the Lower Creatures" (Cutthroat Pop), a smart, humorous and chilling dissection of religion and the human desire to be top of the heap, the pop enigma continued on a path of fearless disregard for boundaries in her work, pursuing a sound and vision distinctly her own. Moving easily from arena rock to chamber pop to eerie soundscapes and playing an array of familiar and uncommon instruments, Brown, with the aid of long-time co-producer Jeff Stuart Saltzman (Stephen Malkmus, Menomena), created something refreshing and unique.

With her sixth album, "Susan Storm's Ugly Sister and Other Saints and Superheroes" (Cutthroat Pop), Brown continues her singular exploration of the human animal and what makes us tick, using comic book superheroes and villains, fictitious siblings and a variety of historical saints to examine the insecurities and cravings of humankind.

"This album's about, well, weird saints and superheroes, or antiheroes," says Brown when asked about the album's title and subject matter. "Some of them, like Susan Storm's Ugly Sister, I made up. Or, in the case of the saints, I made up their neuroses. Though I mainly let the saints stories speak for themselves. I liked all these larger-than-life characters. I like how their stories reveal fundamental things about us--nasty and pretty things."

Admittedly a fan of comic books since childhood, Brown--who grew up in a family of seven children after four boys--inherited not only a comic book fixation but the comic books themselves from her elder siblings.

"By the time I came along my brothers had amassed a stack of comic books that would take your breath away," she laughs. "Marvel Comics ruled--Spiderman, The Fantastic Four. We would spend whole weekends lying on our stomachs on the living room floor, working our way through a four-foot-high stack."

Her fascination with saints came a little later. "I first started hearing some of those stories in art history courses in college, and they are WEIRD. There are saints for everything from agoraphobia to gonorrhea. Christina the Astonishing couldn't stand the sinful smell of people and so she'd levitate to avoid contact, or hide in ovens and cupboards. ??!!! Fantastic! You wonder, though, why so many deeply disturbed people wound up getting prayed to and through. And, of course, why a horrible death (i.e., Zoe of Rome's) made you anything at all, besides dead."

Such questions, though not answered outright, are pondered, discussed and explored on "Susan Storm's Ugly Sister and Other Saints and Superheroes."

Beginning with "Susan Storm's Ugly Sister," Brown's imagination takes center stage and the fun begins.
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"In the comic books as well as the movies, Susan Storm, The Invisible Woman of The Fantastic Four superhero team, is incredibly beautiful. I got to thinking, what if she had an ugly sister (she doesn't, but go with me here!)...one who had no superpowers and who would give anything for the power to turn invisible? She would feel the power of invisibility was completely wasted on Susan--that it wasn't fair."

"In antihero style, I imagined her growing darker and more bitter with each passing year, suffering the daily humiliations of a homely woman, either looked at dismissively, or looked through. At the point in time that my song takes place, she's at maybe a Starbuck's and she's just sitting, seething, alone at a table, looking daggers at people who pay no attention to her, and thinking evil thoughts. In my mind, this is her epiphany when she begins to see that she actually does have a kind of power of invisibility, even if it's not super. I imagine her leaving the cafe and happily beginning a life of homicidal crime."
"Ambush Bug is a D.C. Comics character, a kind of a fool. Originally he sets himself up as a nemesis and then a friend to Superman, but he's regarded as little more than a joke and an irritant."

"In the real world, ambush bugs are fierce little creatures that can bring down much bigger animals, even (rarely) humans. I imagined Ambush Bug's brother (who's singing the song) as a bug's bug, a proud, warrior-like leader-hero of their kind. I imagined how humiliated he would be by his brother's lame and embarrassing exploits. And that's what this song is about. Family embarrassment."
"Another The Fantastic Four character. Galactus is one of the most humongous, powerful badass beings in the universe. He's big enough to eat whole worlds, which is what he goes around doing."

"In my fantasy, Galactus is getting peckish despite having made a promise to Reed Richards (of The Fantastic Four) awhile ago. He promised he wouldn't eat Earth after Reed did him a favor. But like I said, he's really hungry, and Earth's just right there! To my mind, he's also tired, worn out, a little depressed, feeling his age. Lonely."

"So, I imagined he tries to strike a deal: I won't eat you if you give me a child to call my own, a son. The rest of the song is my idea of Galactus imagining his life w/ his adopted Earthling boy. It shows the softer side of the World Eater, but, in the end--he is a World Eater and he's got some eatin' to do."
"I was dismayed to learn recently that there was a bastard son story line in Batman comics! But that has nothing to do with my song, which is about my own special, imagined Bruce Wayne bastard son (and a more sleazy Bruce Wayne than ever exists in the comic books)."

"In my story, Bruce's unknown bastard has--after much searching--found his way to the Bat Cave and is skulking, watching his father, Batman, and his ward, Robin, as they work. Bruce Wayne has no idea he has a son, much less one so bitter and vengeful. My bastard--the product of an unmemorable and long-forgotten Wayne quickie w/ a low-rent hooker--loves/hates his father and loathes and envies Robin, whom he wants to get rid of and replace. My bastard lurks angrily in the cave, and dreams."
ZOE OF ROME (d. July 5, 286 A.D.)
"All that's known about Zoe is that she was married to a high court official in imperial Rome, that she was devoted to St. Peter and that she was seized one day while praying at his tomb. They strung her up from a tree using her own hair and then started a fire under her, on the fifth of July."

"On the surface, Zoe's one of the least interesting saints I've read about. But she's the one who came to mind when I sat at the piano one day. I think it was the Fifth of July reference, and the fact that she was hung by her own hair, lit up like a sparkler, and surrounded by a cheering crowd. A human firework display, and a simple tale that neatly captures two special sides of humanity--bloodlust, and rubbernecking."
"Edith Stein, a Jew in Germany, converted to Christianity and became a nun. She was a brilliant, highly educated, curious woman: ahead of her time. When Hitler rose, she and her sister (also a convert) were smuggled out of the country and taken to Echt, Holland. They were captured there and sent to Auschwitz, where they died in the ovens."

"What drew me to Edith's story is the absurdity and the sad universality of it. I subtitled it, "You May Join Our Club But It Won't Join You." It's every story where a marginalized someone thought they were "in" and did everything supposedly right only to find, when push comes to shove, they were always out."
ST. FINA (1238-1253)
"Poor St. Fina! Her story just annoyed the hell out of me. It's a common one for female martyrs--the Bride of Christ types. She's celebrated for 'the perfect resignation with which she accepted bodily suffering.'"

"Serafina was dirt poor all her life, but exerted herself to help others even less fortunate. She mainly stayed at home and exhausted herself doing chores and sewing and spinning for others. She prayed, a lot, like all the time."

"Eventually, she became ill and then immobilized by a condition that made it painful to move. She refused a comfy bed and opted to lie on a hard wooden board, which her body eventually grew into (yurghh!). Neglected and alone, she was nibbled at by worms and rats. She thanked God, rejoicing in the suffering that only brought her nearer to Christ, her One True Love. When she died, it is said that violets were found growing beneath her body, out of the board. A bouquet from Jesus."

"I subtitled this one 'Jesus Be My Boyfriend.' St. Fina got me thinking, perhaps unjustly, about the lengths that human beings will go to for recognition, attention. What did a girl like St. Fina have to make her mark?"

"I think it goes back to that very human desire to 'BE somebody!' That thing that partly fuels all the blogs and social networks now--Myspace, Twitter, Facebook. Even if 'being somebody!' means 'Most Suffering!' or 'Rat Bitey-est!' Terribly cynical of me, I know, but I question the humility of us. I don't know if we are actually capable of what's called selflessness, though I concede there are people of great generosity of soul and spirit. But--again--go with me here...."

"I imagined Fina as a sickly girl who silently seethed beneath all that piety, resenting and envying her frivolous pals and determining to show them all by getting the Biggest Boyfriend of All--Jesus! And the Biggest Gold Star! Of GOODNESS! I kind of think that if saints weren't saints, many of them would be musicians or actors. Forgive me, Fina, if I did you wrong."
"This is St. Francis. I've always liked St. Francis and his story. He reeks of kindness, in legend, anyway, and he likes animals. I like animals. Whatever you think (I'm a heathen, for example), Francis was apparently a good egg."
Working again with treasured longtime engineer/co-producer Jeff Stuart Saltzman, Brown recorded "Susan Storm's Ugly Sister and Other Saints and Superheroes" entirely at Saltzman's home studio (except for the tap dancing on "Zoe of Rome"), starting with the piano tracks and building from there.

Though Brown and Saltzman played the majority of the instruments on the album, Brown's bandmates John Stewart, Chris Robley, Arthur Parker and Ben Landsverk assisted, plus two additional musicians from another band Brown is in, The Fear of Heights, also helped: Peter Swenson and Dan Adlaf.

Now that the record is done, Brown looks back and thinks of it as fun, perhaps surprisingly, given the stories themselves.

"Despite the dark subject matter, I do think it's a fun album, to the ear," she says. "I like dancing around to 'Bruce Wayne's Bastard Son,' for instance. The sound of 'Zoe' makes me feel happy, even though a horrible murder is happening. Maybe I shouldn't admit that..."

She continues, "I feel like Jeff and I are, each time, getting more of the hang of how to record me. That doesn't mean relaxing too much into habit. We both try to avoid that while at the same time appreciating the nice working relationship that comes with familiarity. Jeff threw me off in a good way a few times, shooting for a more true, more personal or interesting take. That's a tough thing to try to do because you risk destroying confidence and spoiling any future takes, and I know he worried about it. I trust Jeff, though, so putting me a little off-balance resulted in, I think, some good stuff. It's really good to have that other ear there to give you perspective on your performance, as long as you feel safe."

Special guests, early music instrumentalists Gayle and Philip Neuman of Oregon Renaissance Band, provided some off-the-beaten-path accompaniment. Brown explains, "They hand-craft most of their instruments and brought an amazing array to create the cacophony I wanted in St. Fina. Rackett, tromba marina, cornamuse, sackbutt... That was a fun day!"

Likewise providing unusual backup were a local group of tapdancers. Says Brown, "I wanted tap dancers on Zoe of Rome: I wanted the song to sound celebratory and festive ('hey, we're all going out to see the fireworks! and set the lady on fire!'), and I also wanted a sub-pulse glue to complement the piano's rhythm."

"The Skylark Tappers and my friend, Katie O'Hara, did a great job. But we made it very hard on them! We couldn't play a recording overhead or else it would bleed into the tapping we were trying to record. So Jeff brought a pre-set metronome w/ a flashing light to put on the floor, so they all could see it. There was also one set of headphones, so (conceivably) one person could listen and conduct the others."

"I'll apologize to the Skylark Tappers, because the process was a pain in the ass. It is NOT easy to tap to a flashing light, esp. when you're being asked to tap in a swung rhythm! They did admirably well, were supremely patient with us, and we got what we needed."

Summing up the album, Brown says she's most happy when "I feel even semi-successful at conveying a whole feeling or impression--when everything combines just right so that it's like a stamp, a whole-body feeling. I want people to feel the unease under all that happy. I want them to feel the rage under the placid exterior (i.e., Susan Storm's Ugly Sister). I admire writers who've stamped me that way--Lynda Barry, Katherine Dunn, Kurt Vonnegut, Randy Newman, W.H. Auden, Carolyn See, Ursula LeGuin (esp. The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas)."

Continuing, she elaborates on the impetus behind the songs and the album:

"Few things are as they seem and it's the hidden that interests me. What we hide behind and why, how we want to appear, what's shameful to us and why, our public and private justifications for things that are ugly in us, like the (particularly American) fascination with pain and blood--executions, car accidents, gory movies; jealousy, envy, wishing others ill."

"I'm also interested in where good comes from. I think much do-gooding has little to do with selflessness. I don't think we're that different from dogs. We do good for love, or good opinion, or praise, or friends (i.e., not to be alone), or some other, more obvious, personal kibble-like reward. This thought doesn't dismay me! But I guess I do believe in true good, too. I just think it's very, very rare. I've been married a very long time to one of those freaky good types, though, so I'm forced to concede they exist."

When asked how she feels fans will react to the record, Brown is reluctant to answer the question but finally does.

"Oh, hell, I don't know! It's too hard to think about that. I'm already sick to my stomach over how it'll be received. I've had bad things and--more recently--good things said about me and my work. I'd like to think there's some rhyme or reason to it, but I don't know that there is--it's just people. It's awful to admit, though, just how far that good stuff goes in making you feel like you're not a complete waste of space loser!" she laughs.

Now that all is said and done, and the record is finished and awaiting release, Brown mainly wants the listener to pop in the record, listen to it and walk away from it with whatever they want. One thing is certain, though; regardless of your feelings toward the record, you will react to its subject matter. And for Brown, getting you thinking during and after listening to her music is enough.

"Mainly, I just hope I'm a good steward to the songs. I hope I do right by them."

Alex Steininger, In Music We Trust