Song debut: Nick Brown, “Contender”

The Madison singer-songwriter celebrates a new EP on May 12 at the High Noon. 

Nick Brown and band at The Shitty Barn. Photo by Connie Ward.

Nick Brown and band at The Shitty Barn. Photo by Connie Ward.

Nick Brown’s first solo album, 2013’s Slow Boat, struck a balance between stark emotion and smart-assery, often all in the same breath. The humor in Brown’s songs doesn’t intrude upon the more weighty elements, but just finds another way to open them up, like when he offhandedly quotes Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City” on the beautifully somber opening track, “Living That Way,” or playfully overdubs layers of his own voice on the country heartbreak ditty “Play That Song.”

Slow Boat was also a sonically stripped-down affair, accompanying Brown’s lilting baritone with acoustic guitar, Andrew Harrison’s electric leads, and not much else. Brown dispenses with that approach on the long-in-the-works follow-up EP, Contender, whose release he’ll celebrate with a Friday, May 12 show at the High Noon Saloon. He recorded the EP with an electric full-band lineup, featuring Harrison (who also plays with Brown in long-running country outfit Brown Derby) on guitar and pedal steel, Ben Wolf on drums and synths, Rusty Lee on keys, and Pat Logterman on upright bass and gourd banjo. The new recordings share Slow Boat’s affinity for country, but push things more in the direction of bright, open-sounding rock.

“There are a few of the songs on Contender that I either don’t play solo at all or I completely change the feel for a solo acoustic setting, because they were developed in practicing and in the studio differently,” Brown says. “While we didn’t have an infinite amount of time to be able to work through them as a full band, there was a lot more opportunity this time to play with the feel of some of these songs before we even pressed record.”

The title track is one I’ve enjoyed a lot as Brown and band have played some of these new songs live over the past several years. Brown is a bit self-deprecating about this one, telling me, “A friend of mine said it probably belongs in a Chevy truck commercial, which I think pretty aptly sums up the song’s depth.” Maybe we needn’t read too much into it, but there’s still some nuance here. Brown set out to make the narrator a relatable “everyman” character, and essentially one comes to admire the narrator’s persistence but also shake one’s head a bit at his knack for getting into trouble: “I’m running on empty / I’m running my mouth / I’ll put my shit anybody’s in this town / ’Cause I’m a contender, that’s what I am / Throwing my punches with bandages on my hands.”

The whole thing reminds me of the “stay down” sketch on The Kids In The Hall. Brown’s narrator is a bit bigger than Bruce McCulloch, though: “Taking a beating / When you’re taking a stand / If I survive the fight of my life, I know I can survive again / ’Cause I’m a survivor, that’s what I am / 220 pounds of nothing washed up on the white sand.”

Brown clarifies: “I weigh 225, so that’s clearly not self-referential.”

The band comes through on this with an apt mix of punch and slyness. Wolf and Logterman give the song a propulsive swing, while Lee and Wolf’s organ chords and synth lines add a cheerful sheen to the verses and a bouncy little hook on the chorus. Between the verses, Harrison’s burly, cutting melodies help to add a bit of suspense to the everyman’s cyclical misadventures.

We’ve got a stream of “Contender” ahead of the EP’s release. Give it a listen here. Nick Brown and band are also playing a sold-out show with Esme Patterson on June 30 at The Shitty Barn.