Where I learn to stop worrying and appreciate Brandi Carlile’s ‘Bear Creek’

Brandi Carlile - Bear Creek

Originally written for NoDepression.com

This week in Seattle, Brandi Carlile climbed atop the stage at Easy Street Records in lower Queen Anne, as she’s done a number of times before, and ripped through a set of tunes from her new album Bear Creek. I wasn’t there because I live in Asheville, NC, but I’m familiar with the familial atmosphere which swells around any appearance she makes in Seattle. I’ve borne witness to it and it’s not all that surprising.

After all, Brandi started making her way as a performer when she was barely in the double digits. It’s easy to imagine everyone around her instantly recognized her freakish talent. Indeed, she has that certain thing which glues a roomful of eyes to her the second she steps on stage. I’ve heard plenty of critics question what the appeal is until they finally see her live. Two minutes into the show, they get it. That’s not something you hone, so I’m going to guess she had it when she was a kid.

By the time she was old enough to drink a beer, she had sung her way into the arms of one of the major-est major labels. No doubt there were image people on the case.

Which leads me to something I hate to point out, because I too am a woman in a male-dominated field and I know well that there are certain considerations women have to wrangle, with which men don’t as frequently have to concern themselves. When I find myself at a Brandi Carlile concert, or specifically some kind of event where Brandi is one of the headliners (Cayamo is a good example),  it’s hard to ignore the feeling in the crowd that her appearance and her image weigh at least as much as the music does. Her fans may bristle at this, but would they be so goo-goo-ga-ga if she wasn’t also so “dreamy”?

These things have always bothered me about Brandi Carlile, the performer – or perhaps rather the way the world has been presented with her, the way audiences have prioritized their response to her music. Because here’s the final thing: I think she’s a to-the-bone artist. Between the number of interviews I’ve had with her (too many to count) and the various times our paths have crossed in casual life, I believe she understands music in a way so many artists who pursue it don’t. I believe she considers her main instrument (her voice) on a fairly profound level, and I think she takes her journey as a singer in the world very seriously. Indeed, there’s a kind of seriousness one has to have when they pursue a major label recording contract in this music industry environment; when the music their voice naturally creates isn’t necessarily what you’d call “perfectly commercial.”

Yet, she did it. As an Americana singer-songwriter influenced by Elton John and Johnny Cash, in a world of American Idols and Lady Gagas, she got the money people to roll the dice on her. You’ve got to appreciate that kind of spunk.

As much as I’ve enjoyed the albums she’s released over the past few years, I’ve had this sense both as a critic and a fan that she was being held back, away from the proverbial ledge. Her genuine skills have been shaped and honed and directed by some exceptionally gifted producers (T Bone Burnett, Rick Rubin). Mostly, though, my interest in her career has remained because it’s felt like, with each record she’s made, she was edging just a little bit closer to making the kind of record she’s really capable of making. It’s been an interesting story arc, watching the artist grow, watching the leaves change color, etc.

Then came Bear Creek, which dropped on Columbia this week.

And I totally understand.

I’ve never been to Bear Creek, the recording studio just outside Seattle, but I know it from being in the Seattle music world. Plenty of artists have made the trek out there: Fleet Foxes, Gossip, Modest Mouse, Laura Love, Bill Frisell. Etc. If you’re an independent artist of any clout in the Seattle area, it’s one of three or four places you go. If Brandi Carlile was going to shirk major mainstream producers, drive into the boonies, and record some songs the way she wanted them done, it would be a natural choice.

The first time I listened to the album, I got very excited. Making my way through the first few songs, I felt like, Here’s Brandi Carlile, the singer whose spirit has been tied to a tree for a few projects in a row. Then track six happened – a pop song with an 80s vibe that just made me think, Oh no. From there on out, it was a grab-bag array of disconnected songs that had nothing to do with each other – sonically, emotionally, melodically, or otherwise. It felt like an album made for an iPod world; she’d resigned like every other band to the silly idea that people won’t listen to albums from start to finish anymore, so there’s no point in making one that calls for such an experience.

Having placed Brandi under the “true artist” category in my mind – that is to say, the kind of person who has a vision, dammit, and if you just trust her, she will take you for a ride – I suddenly found myself falling against the notion that perhaps she had, after some anticipation, released an album which is terrifically mediocre, lacking any cohesion or direction or thorough consideration. Most of the songs are good, taken alone, but some of them aren’t so much. The last song isn’t, and when it ended the album, I felt gypped. Which, when I was expecting this disc to take me to some kind of  “next step” from the one which preceded it, was a bit of a let-down.

Don’t get me wrong. A great song will sound just as great with your iPod on shuffle as it will in the middle of a solid record. But, there’s something to be said for the artistry of a cohesive album. It’s sort of the aural equivalent of a collection of Jhumpa Lahiri stories or Barbara Kingsolver essays. I love both those authors for their ability to deliver short stories which speak to each other, play off each other. If you read the books in full, from cover to cover, you have a certain cohesive experience with the characters and ideas, which you would not have had you simply plucked a single story from the collection then ignored the rest.

Or there was that movie years ago, Four Rooms, which was really a collection of short films by different filmmakers. You can watch those shorts separately, sure, but together they tell a much more meaningful story.

You see where I’m going here?

Had she not previously released a couple of albums in a row which were well-considered statements of vision, whose cohesion was central to each statement made on the album (from title to cover art, to sequencing, etc.), I may be swallowing this pill with a little more grace. Instead, I felt like she’d dropped the ball; it didn’t make sense.

Then I read this post from Charlie Bermant, where he quotes her as having said: “Everything is fair game on this record and anything you want to come up with is going to work. Nothing doesn’t fit. After the participation of (past producers) Rick Rubin and T-Bone Burnett we thought of this as our ‘the parents are away for the weekend and what are we going to do?’ record.”

That got the wheels turning and all the stars aligned. Of course, I thought. I turned the disc on for another spin and found myself smacked in the face by track number one. The first time through, this tune assaulted me in a way that wasn’t altogether pleasing. It’s catchy, it’s decidedly more country-Americana, for sure. But she sings the whole damn song at full voice. She knows better, I thought, than to sing an entire song with zero dynamics in her voice, creating zero terrain, just to show off her pipes. After all, one of the things I’ve always appreciated about her behemoth vocals was that she knew how to reign them in. So I got tangled in that.

What I should have been doing was listening to the actual lyrics:  

Follow my tracks
See all the times when I should’ve turned back
I wept alone
I know how it feels to be on my own
Ooh, the things I’ve known
Looks like I’m taking the hard way home

And so it is. She sang this whole song at full voice because she could, because nobody was there to stop her. Is that a good thing? I don’t know. But it doesn’t really matter what I think. This is the album Brandi Carlile got to make, the one where she got to wrestle away from the grip and fly out of the nest on her own. The one where she got to explore how much she’s learned from the people whose musical paths she’s crossed. Who cares if it’s not perfect, if it doesn’t follow the tracks laid for her by the big time fancy-shmancy producers she’s worked with before. This is what you get when you let her focus on her raw talent. And raw, it is, granted. But still, it’s not anyone else’s vision.

Bear Creek may not be the best thing she’s ever done but perhaps it’s the record she needed to make. At least half of it is excellent. “Raise Hell” is a freaking gem. But, if she decides to go forward with this kind of raw, basic, honest approach to recording – and I personally think it suits her best – maybe next time get Buddy Miller to produce.

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