Brandi Carlile impressed a lot of listeners right from the jump.
A strong practitioner of folk and roots music, Carlile’s strong debut album gathered a loyal following at Adult Alternative radio. That set her up for her biggest crossover-success, the soaring ballad “The Story.”
Carlile has made a lot of high quality music since then. She’s worked consistently with simpatico collaborators Tim and Phil Hanseroth, identical twins who provide Carlile with strong support. With the recent release of her latest album, The Firewatcher’s Daughter, it’s a good time for a trip through Carlile’s discography.
Brandi Carlile (2005)
Brandi Carlile didn’t exactly storm the gates with her self-titled debut. One of the hallmarks of Brandi Carlile was its hushed restraint. Other singers might have screamed their lungs bloody to get attention. Carlile just made some really great acoustic folk music. The instrumental template didn’t change too much from song to song. Carlile and the Hanseroth twins focused mostly on acoustic guitars and bass, with tasteful percussion, piano and other elements threaded in as needed. The trio added variety via dynamics and tempo. So that put the focus squarely on the songs and the vocals. Which meant the album was on strong footing. Carlile’s voice was fantastic, a bluesy, honey-kissed burr that was as capable of digging into her lower register as it was of belting the high notes. Carlile never oversang; if she was going for a big note, it was warranted and she was just as likely to underplay a moment to enhance the emotional impact. The twins provided spot on harmonies that glided smoothly around Carlile’s confident leads. The standout was “What Can I Say,” one of the more insistent numbers that found favor at Triple A radio. The gentle, strummed “Happy” is another stunning moment, with heart-rending lyrics for a former love (“I’m happy, can’t you see/I’m alright/but I miss you, Amber Lee”). The weary, lived-in “Tragedy” was a compelling motivation on the end of a relationship. “Closer to You” worked up a nice head of steam with little more than layered acoustic guitars. “Fall Apart Again” featured one of Carlile’s strongest vocals against one of the set’s more insistent arrangements. The gentle, swinging lilt of “Gone” flirted with a country vibe to good effect. There wasn’t a bad song on Brandi Carlile and it was a sterling way for to make her presence felt in a market that needed someone like her.
The Story (2007)
After her debut established a strong base for Brandi Carlile at Adult Alternative radio, she sought to widen the tent on sophomore release The Story. Carlile and the Hanseroth twins took a more expansive musical approach, building on the solid acoustic foundation of Brandi Carlile. That meant some fuller arrangements, including more prominent percussion and expanded use of electric guitars to add more rock heft to some cuts. That was evident on title track “The Story,” which built from a gentle strum to a driving, passionate howl, showcasing Carlile’s range and power. It was a fantastic moment that achieved crossover success on the pop charts and became a staple of primetime TV dramas. The more rock-oriented approach resulted in some great, energetic cuts like “Losing Heart,” “Late Morning Lullaby” and “Wasted” that showed off some nice swagger. There was still plenty of stylistic variety showcased on The Story. Carlile and the Hanseroths remained masters of gentle folk songs that relied on little more than their guitars and voices. “Josephine,” “Cannonball” and “Shadow on the Wall” were all lovely, hushed gems that fit squarely into the neo-folk mode. The two approaches even meshed nicely on some cuts, like the wonderful “Turpentine,” a meditation on the passage of time, and the soaring independence anthem “My Song.” The Story was a great example that Carlile could engage the mainstream and vary her approach, while staying true to her roots and it deservedly expanded her audience.
Give Up the Ghost (2009)
On the heels of her crossover success with The Story, Brandi Carlile returned with nothing less than the best album of her career. Give Up the Ghost found Carlile at a creative peak, with a brace of excellent songs (from the singer and the Hanseroth twins) and first rate performances. Give Up the Ghost was a canny blend of Carlile’s influences: folk, rock, roots pop, country and blues all factored into the set, with a couple of nice surprises mixed in. It was also one of the best sequenced albums in recent memory, starting with an almost unbeatable 1–2–3 opening punch. The driving, soaring “Looking Out” was a smart blast of modern roots rock and showcased a stunning, yearning Carlile vocal that dug into complex, multi-faceted lyrics getting to the heart of a relationship (“when you’re outside looking in/you belong to someone”). Carlile unleashed a stunning wail on the bridge that brought it on home in grand style. That led into the dark, propulsive “Dying Day,” a turbulent anthem of devotion. Which perfectly set up the utterly gorgeous ballad “Pride and Joy,” a deep, emotional song that Carlile utterly owned, drenched in real pathos and regret (“where are you now/do you let me down/do you make me grieve/for you”). Lead single “Dreams” was another great piece of uptempo folk rock, while the gentle “That Year” was a moving plaint for a lost friend (“ten years/I never spoke your name/now it’s good to say/you were my friend again”). No less than Elton John showed up to provide harmony vocals for “Caroline,” a jazzy love song that could almost be labeled “swing pop.” And that’s just the first half.
“Before It Breaks” was a rhythmic ballad that ripped open a difficult relationship (“whichever way you turn/I’m gonna turn the other way”). “I Will” carried the banner for neo-folk, with sharp lyrics (“I don’t think you ever learned a thing from me/but I’m sure that you want me to learn from you”) and a growling ache in Carlile’s vocal that stood out as one of her best performance. “If There Was No You” mined the strengths of simplicity, while Carlile embraced country influences on the fantastic “Touching the Ground,” playing some biting lyrical spikes against a sunny arrangement (“why/do my troubles turn true/whenever I rest my eyes on you”). “Oh Dear” ended things on a quiet note, with nothing but a guitar strum and the Hanseroths’ silky harmonies supporting Carlile’s lilting vocal performance. Give up the Ghost moved from strength to strength. It covered a lot of stylistic ground, but everything fit together really well. It was a great testament to the power and importance of the album at a moment when downloadable singles were beginning to displace that concept. Carlile and crew were simply stunning throughout and Give Up the Ghost is essential not just for Carlile fans but for any lover of smart, adult-oriented roots music.
Live at Benaroya Hall with the Seattle Symphony (2011)
Brandi Carlile may not have been the most obvious choice for a live album featuring a symphony orchestra. The singer is known for admirable economy. She never oversings and her songs eschew excess production frippery. And yet Live a Benaroya Hall worked really well. Carlile and the Hanseroth twins did their thing, with guitars and tight harmonies. The Seattle Symphony was oddly simpatico. They never overpowered Carlile. Instead, the strings, brass, woodwinds and tympani supported Carlile and the twins quite effectively. The approach really put the trio’s songwriting into the spotlight, emphasizing different shadings and qualities than what was on display in the recorded versions. It all added up to a pretty appealing live outing before an appreciative hometown crowd. The cuts selected came from all of Carlile’s first three studio albums, showcasing a lot of stylistic diversity. And yet the orchestral approach fit them all well, be it faster material like “Looking Out,” “Dreams” or “The Story,” or slower numbers such as “I Will” or “Shadow on the Wall.” Songs that played with dynamics such as “Pride and Joy” and “Before It Breaks” fared especially well. Carlile and the twins even led a singalong on the bridge of “Turpentine.” It held together really well and came across as quite a bit of fun. The set also included a couple of well-chosen covers. Carlile opened with Elton John’s mournful “Sixty Years On,” a concert staple for her since early in her career, and closed with a rousing take on Leonard Cohen’s oft-traveled “Hallelujah.” Carlile also demonstrated what a vanity-free star she is, graciously stepping aside at one point to spotlight the Hanseroths’ stunning harmonies on the Simon & Garfunkel classic “The Sound of Silence.” Live albums are a must for a singer like Carlile, but it was heartening to see her find a way to put an interesting spin on the concept.
Bear Creek (2012)
Brandi Carlile doesn’t make big stylistic shifts from album to album. Instead, the singer often will spotlight different elements of her musical DNA on each release. And thus Bear Creek, while containing bits of all the styles that Carlile loves, gave a lot of room to her country and rock influences. In some ways, Carlile embraced her country side in a way she never quite had before. She opened with “Hard Way Home,” a smart piece of mid-tempo alt-country, and “Raise Hell,” an energetic, swampy workout that explored the darker edges of country sounds. “Keep Your Heart Young” might have been the closest thing to a classic country sound, but more old school and far removed from anything Nashville would have produced at the time. Carlile represented her rock side with the mid-tempo energy of “100” and “What Did I Come Here For.” Single “That Wasn’t Me” was a lovely rock ballad, digging into some great lyrics about regrets and perceptions (“whatever you see/that wasn’t me”) as Carlile’s upper register soared over the piano arrangement. There were some great quiet, folky cuts, like the yearning “A Promise to Keep” or the shimmering “Just Kids.” And Carlile’s various influences all seemed to flow together in the memorable “In the Morrow,” a mid-tempo workout with real momentum and passion. Throughout, the singer (supported, as always, by the Hanseroth twins) sounded great, just effortlessly in control of the proceedings, but infused with spirit, energy and a sense of true enjoyment of the music. Bear Creek wound up being Carlile’s last hurrah with original label Columbia and was a strong way to end one chapter of her career.
The Firewatcher’s Daughter (2015)
Brandi Carlile didn’t make any major renovations to her musical approach for The Firewatcher’s Daughter. Her first album for ATO incorporates all her usual influences and alternates between acoustic cuts and more rock-oriented songs with finesse. There’s a warmth and appealing looseness to Carlile’s performances and she and the Hanseroth twins come up with a strong collection of songs that gets the singer off to a strong start at her new label. On the acoustic side, lead single “Wherever Is Your Heart” is a rhythmic slice of adult alterna-pop, setting lyrics of romantic devotion against intense guitar fingerwork, percussion and harmonies that to build to a big finish. That cut is emblematic of the variety in the acoustic parts of The Firewatcher’s Daughter. “The Eye” is a lovely, gentle ballad about finding courage (“you can dance in the hurricane/but only if you’re standing in the eye), while “Wilder (We’re Chained)” uses flawless interplay between acoustic guitar and the trio’s harmonies to frame lyrics exploring the choices underlying a long-term commitment. “Beginning to Feel the Years” is a quiet, folky meditation on aging that finds power in understatement. Another romantic devotional, “I Belong to You,” uses intricate fingerwork to add texture, opening up at the bridge to incorporate Carlile’s country influences with a bit of downhome swing. “Heroes and Songs” laces subtle electronic effects into a hushed electric guitar strum to create a fizzy, spacey backdrop for the subtle ache of lyrics that come to grips with some hard-won truths. Album closer “Murder in the City” may be the set’s most interesting moment. It contrasts the gentle guitar-and-harmonies approach against lyrics exploring the final reflections of an urban murder victim. The heartfelt ruminations on life and love round the corner from “morbid” and somehow land back on “sweet.” It’s a subtle risk that really pays off.
The Firewatcher’s Daughter isn’t all quiet ballads, though. In fact, “Mainstream Kid” may be the hardest Carlile has ever rocked, deploying an aggressive electric guitar and drum attack for some witty observations about mainstream popularity and success. “Blood, Muscle, Skin and Bone” captures some of that same kind of energy. “The Things I Regret” demonstrates that “acoustic” doesn’t have to mean “ballad,” as Carlile and company work up a head of steam that takes on tribal overtones, while Carlile confidently assays lyrics about letting regrets roll off your back. “Alibi” flirts with western swing, keeping the pace brisk and breezy to support a confident, playful vocal lead from Carlile (“if you’re good at telling lies/you could be my alibi/and I won’t have to atone for my sins”). Possibly the most distinctive cut on the album is “The Stranger at My Door,” an exercise in pulsing, Americana gothic that builds an atmosphere of suffocating dread and paranoia, incorporates snippets of a martial, electronic take on folk standard “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” and then does a fizzy, dissonant fade-out. It’s a great example of the experimental touches that Carlile and the Hanseroths incorporate to enhance their core approach and is a stunning highlight. The Firewatcher’s Daughter is a fantastic start to Carlile’s new label association and one of her best albums. If you’re an old fan or a potential convert, it’s worth your time.
Originally published at thunderalleybcpcom.ipage.com on April 1, 2015.