New moms Brandi Carlile and Kelly Clarkson: No longer the girls next door


Brandi Carlile.

Brandi Carlile, The Firewatcher’s Daughter. Now that her major-label days are over, Brandi Carlile can get her hands as dirty as she wants. Indulging entirely in the authenticity of the sound she’s been honing since her second album (2007’s T-Bone Burnett-produced The Story), this latest ATO outing was recorded mostly in single takes without any previous rehearsal. The raw effect is immediate, as “Wherever Is Your Heart” — launched as a simple guitar ditty — ascends into a rousing drum-powered belter that tears itself open just before the last refrain. It crawls, builds and, for dramatic effect, pauses. And then boom! Busting out the guttural chops, the queer songstress thrusts the song’s joyfulness straight into your heart, where most of these songs end up, actually.

With well-established bandmates the Twins in tow for the three-part harmony on “The Eye,” the trio’s performance makes for one of the best songs of Carlile’s decade-long career … a tender showcase for all three of them. At its core, The Firewatcher’s Daughter revels in bittersweet feelings familiar to the singer’s fans: nostalgia, growing up, growing old, love and now family. “Murder in the City,” an Avett Brothers’ cover rewritten to reflect Carlile’s own life, comforts the living in the midst of a person’s death. The love we leave behind — that’s what matters, Carlile affirms. On Daughter, there’s plenty to go around.

Kelly Clarkson, Piece by Piece. Kelly Clarkson’s seventh studio album finds the American Idol champ at a crossroads. Does she fix what’s not broken? And if not, how does a 32-year-old pop star demonstrate she’s evolved 13 years after her Idol conquest? More importantly, does it even matter?


Piece by Piece, then, is a crucial moment in Clarkson’s career, which, so far, has been a hit-factory dependent on the singer’s two most alluring qualities: lung power and everyperson appeal. We like her because we want to be BFFs with her. And she makes us feel fierce. And she can sing for real. It’s a winning combo.

For the most part, anyway. The best-friend-who-can-belt formula isn’t quite as convincing on her latest release, a departure that has her joining forces with musicmakers du jour — Sia and Greg Kurstin — for shiny ’80s-esque pop songs that, too often, come off as mere radio stock. During a pair of the album’s most majestic tracks, the glitchy “Take You High” (note 4:20 runtime) and the aimless “Someone,” Clarkson’s powerful presence melts into the scenery, dissolved by an electronic sheen that overwhelms her voice. “Heartbeat Song” has punch, at least, as does the neon-bright EDM peacemaker “Dance With Me.” The same is true for “I Had a Dream,” a rousing anthem co-written by Clarkson, whose voice here, backed by a gospel choir, is as powerful as the galvanizing message of the song itself. Talk about taking you high. I’m still flying.

— Chris Azzopardi

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition March 6, 2015.