Asbury Park’s Chris Brown is responsible for much more than slinging drinks down at the fabled Bond Street Bar. A former math instructor at St. John’s Prep, the Monmouth County native is also a volunteer fireman serving the Allenhurst area. And if that isn’t enough, he’s a full-time musician out in support of a brand new mission. Brown used his developmental years cutting his artistic teeth on the local scene, mixing covers with his own unique trademark of sing-along rock and roll anthems.
Brown’s new record is called Anchor, and it is comprised of nine solidly united songs varying from the prominent influential strains of bands like Green Day to folkloric heroes of yesteryear such as Gordon Lightfoot and Harry Chapin. Anchor also has the distinguished recognition of being produced by Pete Steinkopf of The Bouncing Souls. Steinkopf actually produced all but track number seven, which was produced by Peter Boiko. Boiko and Steinkopf also took on some guitar responsibilities and can be heard on many of the tracks.
Topics range from finding your way home, personal odes to deep paternal relationships, love of guitars, relationships and the celebratory victory of the city that fought the brink of collapse and came out on top. Anchor tells a story of a journey through people, places and times seen through the creative lens of Chris Brown.
When I asked about the title and what this record meant to him, Chris Brown had this to say: “The album title comes from the fact that I grew up in Asbury and I've finally come back and settled here with my wife, who is my true anchor. These songs tell the story of the places I've been and what I've come back to.”
The disc opens to descending stretches of acoustic chord flourish on “16.” It’s refreshing that Brown opted to avoid conventional bass and drums, relying on measured down strokes via his Billie Joe Armstrong-styled technique. Huge, sing-along backing vocals drive this poppy request for that cherished second opportunity at the brass ring. Brown’s knowledge of quick and catchy construction is apparent right from the very start.
“Anchor," the disc's namesake and title-track, is up next, and once again heads into contemporary pop territory. However, Brown peppers the song with intricate mixtures of church-flavored organ, turning this otherwise conventional, single guitar arrangement into a picturesque blend of addictive melody and tone. Brown's prodigal son vexation comes through loud and clear with the line most Jersey natives end up saying at one time or another: “The sun went down on the last 10 years, I never thought I’d end up back here.” Brown’s search and absolute determination for the security and comprehension of the human relationship put “Anchor” deep into the riverbed of everyone’s syncopated thoughts.
The opening of “This Here Guitar” swings in on rich, finger-picking patterns that waltz heartfelt impressions of James Taylor and Jim Croce straight through to the end. Brown tips his hat to his father here, dedicating the song to the man that guided him to his continued exploration of music. Clear and simple, this is a balance of grateful admiration.
“You Say” clangs into the intro via acoustic guitar together with metered tambourine hits. “You Say" reminds me of just about anything done by The Script. Uber hooky choruses ring with soprano high harmonies and systematic lyrics declare sing-along success on this 3:50 of radio amicable alt rock pop.
“When We Were Kids” skiffles into the mix, acoustic guitars hiccup over fist-raising lyrics harkening back to the days when “we were kids singing punk rock songs.” Brown rallies his boyhood mates and followers as backdrop “whoas” fill the spectrum of this feisty dedication to experiencing life without regret. As the song says, “If you don’t have heart, you might as well be dead.”
“Bobby” two-steps in on lively beds of ragged Jersey blues harp and finger-plucked acoustic guitar as Brown tells the story of a man and his long departed glory days. Brown shines empathetic on the triumphs and tragedies of loss and the inescapable lesson of ultimate gratefulness. Brown’s points are honest, open and sincere, and that’s why this works.
“Sailin’ With Jerry” seesaws in on campfire harmonica and straight, acoustic down strokes. "Sailin’ With Jerry” seems to be topically tropical in nature, mixing hangovers with the Maui-tinted slide guitar work of Pirate Pete Boiko, which warbles onto the bridge as Brown reminisces of “feet in the sand and drinks in our hands.” Brown depicts the Caribbean vagabond’s picture quite well, and I can see the palm trees and sunsets like they were right outside my window. I’m not quite sure who Jerry might be, but I’m kind of hoping it’s ol’ J. Garcia, back from the other side of supernal Bimini and out for a collective sing-along voyage aboard his yacht of cold beverages.
“Take Me Home” bursts out of the speakers with energy and compelling variation. Vibrant and alive, “Take Me Home” is a total opposite of sounds heard on the disc thus far. Hand claps fly over bass drums, guitars and more. Brown and company start out of the gate at maximum tempo plastering razor-edged harmonicas all over the intro and the bridge. As a vocalist, Brown is quite similar to guys like Danny O’Donoghue and Tyson Ritter (All-American Rejects) and tends to make singing seem second thought easy on this entire record.
Brown's outlook on the history of his beloved Asbury tells the tale pretty much as it happened. From the celebrated days of splendor to the eventual unrest, decay, greed and deceit of a town caught in the vise of inevitable destiny, Brown toasts his cherished oceanfront scene on “When The Lights Went Out.”
Brown toughs it out with a single, auditorium-sized acoustic as he hails the greatness and the gullibility of a city that still faces an uphill battle. Pete Steinkopf’s electric guitar lead pierces the middle-eight, firing melodic single-note runs in tandem with chorded voicings and emotion-drenched string bends that delightfully summon the spirit of Bob Stinson before fading back into choruses, allowing Brown to lament the musical greats that once made this area untouchable. As Brown says, “As the Boomers cast lots for the city they forgot, we’ll strike up the band to play." And that’s the real reason that city has survived; the music is always going to be the heart of the matter.
Chris Brown is an honest, straightforward writer with a talent for telling a heartfelt story without sounding like a phony, commercial sellout. Not everyone can dig into that level of emotion without coming across as corny or rehearsed, and I applaud his application of intimacy and lack of insecurity on Anchor.
I also enjoyed the production methods used here. It would have been quite easy for Steinkopf to slather this whole thing with Bouncing Souls branding and technique, but the dynamic attention to simplicity and control shown here has resulted in a raw and emotional record that supports the artist and has the essential elements of success written all over it.
I also wanted to mention Brown’s background vocal crew, a talented and well-known ensemble who did a bang up job on this record. The backing choruses for “Sailing With Jerry” features Maggie Brown, Matthew James Brown, Gerald Edward, Mack Zoyle, Lauren West, Howie Cohen, Steve Reilly, Leyna Santore, Seth "Seaman" White, Victoria "Golden" Gonzales, the infamous Jeanne Crump, Rob Gruner, Vinnie Allegro, Laurie Jackym and Jason Stumpf. And Howie Cohen, Zachary West, Zach Moyle and Charles D. Brown,IIIon everything else.
If you want to see how Chris Brown handles this group of extraordinary songs live, come help mark the release of Anchor on July 11 over at The Anchor’s Bend in Asbury Park. The Anchor's Bend is positioned at 1300 Ocean Ave. in Asbury Park.
For more information on Chris Brown and his latest release, head over to chrisbrownap.com.