Sometimes the randomness gives me an album I’ve owned for decades and sometimes it gives me something I just bought. It was the latter this time, which is why I took so long getting to reviewing it – I had to get to know it first.
Disc 1114 is… Bear Creek
Artist: Brandi Carlile
Year of Release: 2012
What’s up with the Cover? A pretty little creek that reminds of British Columbia’s interior. It’s been a while since I’ve been there but the beauty sticks with you, even if this particular Bear Creek is somewhere else.
How I Came To Know It: I read a review of Brandi Carlile’s most recent album, “By the Way, I Forgive You” and then I heard a few songs a liked them. This led me down the back path through her previous albums, many of which I liked. “Bear Creek” was one of those.
How It Stacks Up: I have no idea. I went a little nuts after discovering Brandi Carlile and bought four of her albums in the space of a week. I’ve been busy since then and I’ve only listened to the other three once or twice, making comparisons difficult. I guess I’ll just act like a figure skating judge watching the first flight of skaters and say “Bear Creek” is third or fourth best, because it gives me maximum wiggle room. Sure it lands the triple Salchow, but how do I know if other Brandi Carlile albums will land it better?
Ratings: 3 stars but almost 4
In writing, the specific is terrific. This is one of the reasons I love folk music so much; it tells a story and grounds that story in tangible sights, sounds, smells and memories. In pop music – particularly the mass-produced kind – the opposite is often true. Songs are grounded in very generic concepts of love, loneliness or joy designed to reach a maximum audience by essentially leaving the details vague, and letting the listener insert their own. I prefer the folk approach.
“Bear Creek” falls somewhere in between. Sometimes Carlile’s narratives drew me into her world, and other times I was left wishing there were more details. Having a record full of catchy melodies and Carlile’s powerhouse vocals made up for a lot, but not for everything.
Carlile’s voice sounds like a cross between Patty Griffin and Bonnie Raitt; big and bold with a bit of rasp around the edges. There are even times (such as on “That Wasn’t Me”) that she channels a bit of Adele, with a low power and anthemic delivery.
Carlile always sounds pitch perfect and she has an honest delivery that draws you in and makes you believe. She’s backed up by twins Phil and Tim Hanseroth, and like Carlile, they are both multi-instrumentalists. At this point the band is so new to me that I don’t know who is playing guitar, piano or anything else at any given moment, but it is played with excellence so I’m happy.
The arrangement knows just when to drop in strings, piano and banjo and the production is crisp and clear with great sound separation. For this kind of music the production is almost too crisp, and at times the polish gets in the way of the spit, particularly on the sadder stuff. This is partly the purity of Carlile’s voice, which makes everything seem a bit clearer than usual. Vocalists that let their voice trail off at the end of lines or mumble their way through sections because they mistakenly believe it emotes better could learn a lot here.
The pop influences are strong, and upbeat little love songs like “Heart’s Content” could be radio hits if, you know, radio was fair to people who put songwriting above stardom. That’s OK with Carlile, who also works in good old fashioned foot-stomping indie folk. “Hard Way Home” tells yet another version of taking the path less travelled. Funny how many songs there are about taking an uncommon path…In the case of “Hard Way Home” the upbeat rhythm makes it clear Carlile is not only at peace with her decision, but sees it as cause for celebration. There are even gospel and blues hints, particularly on “Raise Hell” a great song for driving if you want to drive fast.
You’ll note that I didn’t quote any lyrics in this review, and that speaks a bit to my disappointment with the amount of specificity there. The most specific song is “Keep Your Heart Young” where Carlile channels Guy Clark’s ‘aw-shucks, remember when we were kids’ thing. Unfortunately I found the song a bit hackneyed. Also, one of the way Carlile advocates keeping your heart young is to put a rock in the middle of a snowball which is just not OK. That wouldn’t fly in Canada, Brandi.
I discovered Brandi Clark only two weeks ago and I was a bit nervous that I wouldn’t know her well enough to do the record justice. Now that I’ve had a few days with “Bear Creek” I’m glad the Dice Gods gave me this doorway into her sound, and I’m looking forward to exploring more of her catalogue soon.
Best tracks: Hard Way Home, Raise Hell, Save Part of Yourself, What Did I Ever Come Here For?, In the Morrow