In the past few years, Brandi Carlile has become an interesting phenomenon in the Northwest. The 25 year-old singer from Ravensdale, Washington sells out her Seattle-area shows pretty quickly and she seems to be pretty big with the VH1/103.7 the Mountain crowd, but her second major label release plays it safe at every opportunity. This is the type of record that could flourish only on a major label averse to taking any risks.
This album is titled The Story; Carlile envisions herself as a folkie/country-esque storyteller in the tradition of Dylan, yet the songs here are thin and have been explored countless times previously. That’s normally a trait I celebrate in pop music (a glorious but vapid genre on the whole), but without the rose-colored filter of countless layers of production, there is little left.
There is nothing wrong with The Story, per se. It is a decent record. The songs are well written, well sung and well produced (by T Bone Burnett). The first song, “Late Morning Lullaby” would fit well in the “adult alternative” genre (which I think is for people who want to say they listen to something edgier than Celine Dion while reading magazines in the waiting room for the dentist).
Take, for example, the song “Turpentine.” It’s a first person account of losing someone due to your own alcoholism. The song sounds nice, is sung well, all that jazz and has a chorus of “it’s six AM and I’m all messed up.” The term “messed up,” to me at least, is a sanitized word that masks any actual emotion – like saying “fudge” if you hit your thumb with a hammer. I’m not (necessarily) advocating swearing, but there must be a stronger word that would fit with the song better.
Brandi Carlile won't make anyone forget solo female artists like Neko Case or Cat Power or Regina Spektor (all of whom have more distinct and stronger voices and write better songs). But, the record and Brandi Carlile's songs are easy to like. Would I prefer something more challenging? Of course, but I won’t automatically change the radio station if one of these songs comes on – but won’t give it much thought beyond that.