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Music Review: Brandi Carlile – The Story

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When Brandi Carlile played the House of Blues in Cleveland on tour supporting her 2005 debut, Brandi Carlile, she was still a relative newcomer. Her opening set fought against the swath of teenyboppers impatient to see pop act The Fray; Carlile’s dramatic vocals and modern Americana sound eventually won over the disruptive (and largely negligent) crowd. She had to work pretty hard to get them, but by the end, Carlile had them. When she returned to the stage to deliver Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” – solo acoustic, a gutsy move – she brought the house down.

It’s a great metaphor for Carlile, who is by no means off-putting – she is simply a homecoming of sorts for the bygone days when singer-songwriters needed only their voice and a compelling narrative to thrive. The Seattle native’s latest effort The Story makes good on the promise of her debut. Another triumphant display of songcraft, testimony and vocal command, it’s no wonder rootsmeister T Bone Burnett (Roy Orbison, Elvis Costello, O Brother, Where Art Thou?) decided to produce The Story. Carlile sounds like a veteran performer and road warrior and is worthy of the lengthy career that this sophomore effort suggests for her.

Carlile is a captivating vocalist and lends a brusque-and-bluesy tonal quality to her modern day torch songs. Her vocal presence exemplifies the stiff upper lip fortitude of gals like Patsy Cline, Linda Ronstadt, k.d. lang and even Melissa Etheridge and yet it's versatile and can shift keys like the late Jeff Buckley’s voice could. She sounds right at home on songs like “Downpour,” “Late Morning Lullaby,” “Turpentine” the one-take “Josephine” and “The Story,” the latter featuring an endearing vocal crack underpinning those soulful emotions. Her voice soars, an expected cornerstone of each and every song.

If “The Story” and “Lullaby” sound particularly organic and intuitive, it’s because both have benefited from regular performance on her first neverending tour. It’s also because Burnett recorded them and the rest of The Story almost entirely live. The songs all sound extraordinarily rich for that Bring the Family-like approach; it's a testament to Burnett's mastery at the boards. Another hearty standout, “Cannonball,” features a pair of erstwhile newcomers who have paved the way for Carlile – Amy Ray and Emily Saliers, Indigo Girls. They're brilliant by themselves; together, with Burnett channeling the magic, they all make songwriting sound like an effortless endeavor.

Of course, it’s not. The understated impact on Carlile that twin brothers/collaborators Phil and Tim Hanseroth – on bass and guitar, respectively – cannot be overstated, either. They add a measure of equilibrium to Carlile’s extraordinary voice and their contributions to her songbook seem to bake in that age-defying acuity and maturity she has with just the right amount of heat. It’s no wonder Carlile has enjoyed a hearty run of live performances opening for everyone from Shawn Colvin and Jamie Cullum, to Ray LaMontagne and Chris Isaak. She’s poised to join them as full-blown peers… and maybe even pass them by.

No sophomore jinx here. Alongside Lucinda Williams brand new effort, West, Brandi Carlile's The Story is an early contender for Album of the Year.

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About Peter Chakerian

  • A friend of mind recommended Brandi Carlile. I have a love for fresh music, especially female artist. I have to admit, I feel purchasing The Story was well worth every penny and a wonderful addition to my ever growing music collection. Her voice is incredibly rich and moving, and her songs have a way of seeming timeless. So… anyone seeking away to escape pop, I highly recommend it!