‘Bear Creek’ starts badly — and then Brandi Carlile lets her true self shine through
Even though she hails from the Pacific Northwest, Brandi Carlile peppers Bear Creek, her latest album, with major touches of Appalachia. Coupled with sensitive lyrics, the backwoods sounds bring out some of her best work. But trudging through the lesser songs is a chore.
When I got to the meat of Bear Creek, I was reminded of Carlile’s strengths in writing and singing. She relies on these more than any type of flash so it’s sometimes easy to forget what she’s capable of. But she’s consistent with solid work that is less about creating a hit and more about forging a legacy.
This comes through foremost on “That Wasn’t Me,” the album’s fourth track, but also the start of the good stuff. Her emoting connects with a smoky vocal resonance. There’s something exterior about Carlile, but when she opens up, as she does here, it’s like uncovering a buried treasure. The ballad recalls a bit of Adele’s “Someone Like You” in its drama, but with an easiness to it that keeps it her own.
When Carlile steps away from her woodsy-flavored sounds, she shines with a peppier track, as on “100.” The beat trots at a steady pace over a sweet love song. Carlile is one of the few songwriter who can compose a song that doesn’t reek of sappiness; breaking out of her hillbilly music box is proof she can stretch her sound successfully but without making a shocking departure.
She rides her musical prowess on “A Promise to Keep,” recalling hints of early Fleetwood Mac, and the flirty “Heart’s Content,” with its lacelike instrumentation underneath her singing. Carlile is displaying top-of-her-game goods.
She falls back into reliable territory with “Still Be There” and “Rise Again,” songs that bridge her album to her stellar final tracks. The hearty resignation of “In the Morrow” is melancholic with opposing optimism. She sings In the morrow I’ll be gone / I gave it everything I had for so long / Don’t we always find a way to carry on with such honesty that I felt like I was reading her diary, but the poetics behind it made me want to turn the page.
“Just Kids” could have veered into Sarah MacLachlan snoozer territory, but Carlile pulls back to keep it from jumping off that cliff. It’s hypnotizing and drifty, with a power to make me stop everything else just to listen. This wraps up Bear Creek wonderfully.
But the opening could have used some work — a lot of it. Carlile channels her inner Loretta for the first three tracks, but they miss. She’s being bleak, with lyrics that refer to death despite even as the music is all yee-hawing. On the opener, “Hard Way Home,” she confesses I’ll tell you how I wanna live / forget about the take forget about the give. / I wanna leave this town. Fake my death and never be found. She refers to being six feet deep in
“Raise Hell” and almost left me thinking this whole album would be a buzzkill set to a square dance.
These songs, along with the more delicate “Save Part of Yourself,” open the first act of Bear Creek, but Carlile’s voice is nowhere present in them. It’s unfortunate starting off an album with a tone of detachment especially when, once you get past them, a door opens and a flood of greatness rushes in.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 13, 2012.