Brandi Carlile is the female Johnny Cash. There. I’ve put my outlandish claim out into the world and I intend to stand by it. Not only does Brandi easily cloak country, folk and rock in pop sensibilities but at times her gritty, world-weary voice also kinda sounds like him, though not in a poser, imitative fashion.
On Bear Creek, her fourth album, she builds on her past success, stretching a bit as one would expect from any creative artist. For instance the opening track, the foot stomping “Hard Way Home,” features steel drums and vocal harmonies that evoke the lonely sound of a train whistle. “100” has a quirky yet subdued 80s new wave feel, albeit without synthesizers, and “I’ll Still Be There” reaches into early 50s rock for inspiration. And then, well, that’s about it for something new. Carlile sticks pretty much to what has worked so well for her in the past, working with the same band mates and themes to create a flurry of songs heavy on melody and crammed with cathartic passion. And for the most part, it still works.
For the most part. The problem is that Brandi is a victim of her own success. Her past albums each have a song or two that are absolutely gorgeous, perfect in their writing and packed with more emotion than a black hole has matter. They’re the kind of songs that make you want to pick up a guitar and sing along, confident that her talent is overflowing enough to make up for your own shortcomings. On this album there are no such timeless classics. The thirteen songs are by and large extremely strong and well worth your time but they are not transcendent. It’s a mere 9 jn the wake of two 10s so I’m not exactly complaining. I mean, after being disappointed a couple of times so far in 2012 by long-cherished bands I’m glad to be served some hearty ear food. Vittles like the rocking “Raise Hell” or the gentle piano and cello-based “Heart’s Content” or maybe even the invigorating “Rise Again” which culminates in a sizzling guitar solo, songs that stir the heart and sooth the soul. Lyrically she’s true to her past, being encouraging and uplifting without becoming cheesy. Apparently she had a pretty crappy, lonely childhood and her lyrics are comforting beacons of hope in this dark world. Highlights include “Keep Your Heart Young” (possibly the best song on the album) and the gossamer “Save Part of Yourself.”
Bear Creek is a worthy companion to Brandi Carlile’s earlier albums though at times it seems like she’s holding back just a bit. I blame the producer. But like hearing Clapton play on an off day is still hearing Clapton, a near miss by Carlile is a fine album indeed. Just make sure that when you purchase Bear Creek you also pick up The Story and Give Up The Ghost … you’ll hear how one day this artist will have earned the right to stand with legends.