She's not been a top 40 hitmaker – yet -- but fans of TV's “Grey's Anatomy” are well familiar with Brandi Carlile's music: three songs from her 2005 self-titled debut CD have appeared on “Grey's Anatomy”, and now songs from this amazing followup release are also starting to appear on the show.
It's easy to hear why the producers of that TV show are enamoured with her music. Carlile is a rare talent – a singer-songwriter with both a savvy melodic sense and an instantly classic voice that can rise to a catching falsetto and plummet to a whiskey-tinged growl with equal parts grace and guts. Her songs all brim with simple Americana beauty and raw emotion. A commenter on her MySpace page said it better than I ever could: “I have never felt so much while listening to music.”
The song structures and the mildly twangy colour of her vocals (which sound more like she's from Arkansas than Seattle) hearken to the confessional moments of k.d. lang and back to the days of Patsy Cline but without sounding desperately old fashioned. There's a worldweariness to the gentle waltzing sway and sadly musing cello of “Downpour,” and a heartaching honesty in the wilting introspection of “Shadow on the Wall,” (where she sings “how I long to be a shadow on the wall/ I would make no sound at all/and when the sun goes down/the shadow on the wall cannot be seen at all.”)
While Carlile writes most of her own material, the album's title track was actually written by her bassist and turns out to be one of the most moving tracks on the new disc, allowing Carlile to demonstrate the astonishing range of her vocals. The song opens with a quietly confessional lyric and a simple acoustic guitar as she sings:
“All of these lines across my face
tell you the story of who I am
so many stories of where I've been
and how I got to where I am
but these stories don't mean anything
when you've got no one to tell them to
It's true… I was made for you.”
From there the lightly picked guitars suddenly “plug in” and the song builds into a pounding declaration of love that holds so much intensity Carlile's normally crooning vocal cracks with the edge of a Melissa Etheridge at one point – but rather than ruin the take, that “cracking” moment crystallizes the emotion of the entire song into one pure moment. It's a breathtaking exercise in perfectly melded songcraft and performance.
The entire album finds moments of sharp poetry (like this line about growing apart: “these days we go to waste line wine/that's turned to turpentine” or “I dreamed I would fall like a wounded cannonball”) and rousing folk rock (in fist-raisers like “The Story” and “My Song” which starts out sounding like a U2 track) mixed with backporch timelessness (in tracks like the gorgeously harmonized “Have You Ever,” the sweet vocal interplay of “Josephine” and the easy sway of “Cannonball,” which features harmonies courtesy of the Indigo Girls).
There are 14 songs on The Story (including one hidden “bonus” track about hiding one's heart away for fear of losing that which is loved). Every one of them is a victory in breathtaking songsmithing. Don't miss this gentle, tightly drawn album from a voice whose pen is far wiser than her years should allow.
For song and video samples, check Carlile's website at www.brandicarlile.com. And don't miss seeing her play live outside at Ravinia on June 25.