EDITOR’S NOTE: As album releases slow down in December, we like to catch our breath and write about albums that came out earlier in the year that we didn’t get a chance to review but we think are worthy of your attention. Undercover was released in June.
Bronwynne Brent only needs four understated, finger-plucked acoustic guitar chords to set the delicious bluesy swing of “Lost in the Moonlight” in motion. Her song’s groove is well established by the time the drums, horns, and jazzy organ make their tasteful entrances.
“It’s after midnight / And I’m feeling so spry / Got a spring in my step / Fireworks like the Fourth of July,” Brent sings, dancing playfully through her lyrics’ meter. “Why go on waiting / Anticipating? / Kiss me, you fool / It’s just right / I know that you want me / So don’t play and taunt me / Tonight I’m going to make you mine.”
In a year of “unexpectedly timely” records (if the publicists are to be believed … ), Brent released a decidedly not-COVID album. Undercover exists in the half-nervous, half-thrilled psychic space of hitting the town, of getting close to strangers. This is a social record that nearly dropped, by pure bad luck, almost exactly when the word social became inextricably tied to distance: Undercover was initially slated for an April 10 release, and would have released mere days or weeks (depending on the state) into quarantine. Undercover was delayed until June and released with little fanfare, and so a passionate, nuanced record — one of 2020’s strongest releases, if you ask this reviewer — flew straight under the radar.
Undercover is upbeat, heady, and romantic. It’s sensual and structurally feminist — there’s no questioning Brent’s sexual agency — and remarkably frank about the often unstated, self-esteem-challenging aspects of dating life (“I know it’s late / I know I’m not / What you want / I’m what you got”). It’s an album about all the things we can’t do right now, and it evokes them in their beauty and ugliness with equal parts passion and levelheadedness.
“He’s a real big talker / fills me full of dreams,” Brent sings over jangly psych-pop on “Big Talker,” her versatile voice, which can swagger in Patsy Cline’s register or reach for the low rafters, taking a Dolores O’Riordan lilt in this instance. “Always leave empty / he’s not what he seems.”
Indeed, versatility — emotional, vocal, stylistic — is a keyword on Undercover. This Greenville, Mississippi, songwriter angles toward midcentury French pop-meets-Morcheeba’s The Antidote on title track “Undercover,” while the delicate “Raincoat” could have emerged from the Greenwich village singer-songwriter circuit. Undercover was recorded in Daptone Studios, and that spirit is clear in the stately horns and gentle Motown shuffle of “You’ve Lost Your Way.”
“You come home early in the morning / You think everybody is asleep / She’s been sitting with her eyes wide open / and tears running down her cheeks,” Brent sings on her cover of Chuck Willis’ “Whatcha Gonna Do When Your Baby Leaves You.” Rather than glorifying the life of a man who stays out all night playing nightclubs, this 1956 blues cut focuses on the woman left lonely and dejected at home — and her imminent departure. Brent’s confidence, phrasing, and vocal power drive home that when this woman leaves, it’ll be a victory.
She’ll be fine. She’ll be out on the town. And she’ll be in control.