Album review: Brandi Carlile – Bear Creek (Columbia)

While she’s not a comic-book hero Avenger, Brandi Carlile possesses a disarming, clear, clarion voice that could seemingly leap tall buildings in a single bound.

Late last year, on her first-ever solo tour, the Seattle transplant wowed with volume-dealing pipes that expressed a broad range of emotions without resorting to petty histrionics, invoking maudlin devices, or coming across with the harshness that plague many pre-packaged pop contemporaries. Carlile’s stage presence also mirrored the projective reach of her singing. She didn’t draw attention to her sexuality or flaunt attitudinal clothing, and yet her independence was never in question.

Four studio albums into her career, Carlile now possesses enough top-flight songs to match that soaring voice. Lyrically, she latches onto relationship episodes involving longing, grieving, and regret, and still, invites enough lighthearted fare and happy-ending devotionals to complete a well-rounded whole. Given her hit-making potential—particularly at a time when Adele, with whom Carlile shares similar traits, dominates—it would seem that her new Bear Creek would prime her for a creative and commercial breakout.

While the album might see considerable sales success and doesn’t lack for sporadic bursts of literate material, it’s not the set Carlile needs. Well-manicured, with pronounced smoothness and rounded edges, the rootsy effort hems in the exuberance, grit, and spontaneity the Washington State native displays onstage. In addition to featuring an assortment of session instrumentalists, it again pairs her with longtime collaborators and bandmates Tim and Phil Hanseroth, who, aside from their songwriting contributions, weren’t missed when Carlile went it alone. In the wake of T Bone Burnett and Rick Rubin, respectively, Grammy-winning Trina Shoemaker becomes the latest name engineer/producer unable to present Carlile in the proper studio light. One yearns to hear what she’d do with minimal accompaniment, or what she could muster if left alone with a piano and guitar. It’ll have to wait.

Taking its name from the facility at which it was recorded, Bear Creek reflects a rustic bent, with mandolins and violins shadowing a majority of tracks. A streamlined, bluegrass-tinged blend of handclaps and gently stomping beats graces the opening “Hard Way Home” and “Raise Hell.” Both songs demand mettle and defiance, and even as Carlile’s pale country drawl and note-vaulting flutter demand attention, background vocalists and the pop sheen castrate their effect. Her timbre can’t rescue the derivative “100” or “Hearts Content,” either.

In spite of multiple stale, conservative arrangements—“Just Kids” is the sole take that plays with atmospherics and swaddles the music in adventurous, advantageous settings—Carlile’s soulfulness and sincerity transcend a majority of the limitations. On the simple innocence of “Keep Your Heart Young,” she rides washboard-like percussion and acoustic strumming back to her childhood days, relaying an old adage in a fresh, fun manner. Carlile flexes her sympathy-inducing falsetto and hiccupping lilt during “I’ll Still Be There,” which balances on a repeating piano riff and gives way to her big cry of a voice. With girl-next-door wholesomeness and predisposed ache, she excels at self-reflection, despair, and assurance, her singing patiently floating atop melodic flourishes until they crest, allowing her to cash in on dramatic crescendos.  And she never requires much help.

For evidence, see “That Wasn’t Me,” a tender piano ballad that begins unaccompanied and finds Carlile tearing into words with a personal intensity and apologetic intimacy too often missing on the record’s over-processed songs. Used sparingly, a gospel choir adds integrity and depth. But the head-turner is strictly Carlile’s turn, as it should be. —Bob Gendron

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