Tuesday, October 22, 2013

album review: '12 stories' by brandy clark

We return again to country music, but this week, we aren't going to talk about the mainstream country scene or the widening split between bro-country and traditional country. This time, we're going to be talking about what some have called 'underground country', the music that doesn't quite reach the airwaves these days or have a lot of pop crossover success.

Here's where I'll have to confess something: outside of the mainstream country charts and outlaw country, I don't have a huge amount of knowledge regarding country acts that have never really charted outside the mainstream, acts that the average country music fan will have never heard of or likely will never hear. As I stated in my Special Comment regarding the state of modern country music, I put forward that due to the majority of critics ignoring underground country (especially Pitchfork, which I don't understand because hello, it's underground, it might actually be better than the mainstream country acts you've clearly dismissed), there isn't really a good avenue for country music fans like me to go digging for this sort of material. Honestly, if it wasn't for recommendations from the comments (thanks folks) and the regular visit to the website SavingCountryMusic, I wouldn't have the slightest clue where to start. And as I said, when the critical press ignores country music, not only does it damage the artistic and critical dialogue, but it also ignores lesser-known but potentially excellent country acts from garnering the critical acclaim they deserve.

And as pretty much the only country music critic on Youtube, I guess I can make it part of my duty to revise this, so let's talk about Brandy Clark. For those of you who don't know, she's a singer-songwriter who has cowritten a fair number of country songs I like, including 'Follow Your Arrow' from Kacey Musigraves which might just be one of my favourite songs of the year. She's better known for cowriting the excellent 'Mama's Broken Heart' for Miranda Lambert and most notably for cowriting the southern gothic and absolutely hysterical 'Better Dig Two' by The Band Perry. Reportedly, she has a taste for the seedy underbelly of country folk - and speaking as a fan of outlaw country and someone who digs the hell out of southern gothic takes on Americana, I was pretty psyched for this debut release, titled 12 Stories. I was less enthused by the fact that she's signed to a very small record label with the only other signee being Neal McCoy, but hey, baby steps. So, how does the record turn out?

Well, it's awesome. It wasn't entirely surprising that 12 Stories was superb and a great listen, but it's a welcome relief and definitely a very solid album I enjoyed a great deal. Without a question it's recommended, but I think the next step is asking why it works as well as it does - and yet at the same time, just a shade behind Kacey Musgraves for me personally. And believe it or not, that's not a value judgement, because Brandy Clark is targeting something of a different audience with her album, and you can tell how that manifests throughout nearly every facet of the work. And considering Kacey Musgraves did drop one of the best albums of the year, the fact that Brandy Clark is only a few hairs behind her is high praise indeed.

But I should explain this a little further. Brandy Clark does share a lot of the best talents of Kacey Musgraves, to be sure: her songwriting is superb, cutting, and unafraid to attack controversial subject matter head-on. And like with Kacey Musgraves, she has a solid element of populism that lends her songs a ton of emotional weight - you can believe that the material she's bringing forward is coming from a real place and possibly real experiences, and even if it's not, Brandy Clark does a fantastic job selling it. Her voice stays away from the occasional flighty tones of Kacey Musgraves and harkens back to a deeper richer alto that's more in line with one of my favourite female country singers of all time: Reba McEntire. And while Clark doesn't quite belt the same way Reba does, she still manages to capture the rich, emotive delivery that made Reba so damn compelling, even when her songwriting wasn't always at its best (people tend to forget that throughout the 80s, Reba was distinctly pop-country and eventually pivoted away from it). 

And it's not just in vocals that Brandy Clark resembles Reba, it's also in the production and instrumentation, which shies away from the rollicking folk edges of Kacey Musgraves and goes for something a little smoother and dare I say a little more mature, driven by piano and the occasional bit of guitar. There are fewer rough edges in Brandy Clark's instrumentation, but there's still plenty of texture and hidden elements I really liked - fleeting harmonica and fiddles, the occasional rumble of electric guitars, or a fragment of a piano melody that really stuck with me. You can tell the production isn't quite top of the line at points, but I'd argue it works - the biggest element of Brandy Clark's appeal is that she can sound relatable and normal, speaking to the average woman, and thus any production gimmicks would have come across as unnecessary.

And now let's come to the songwriting - which is incredibly solid for what it's trying to do. I could nitpick and say that there are a few dud rhymes that did draw me out of the experience, but more often than not, I could completely ignore that because Brandy Clark delivers so much more. It helps her material that she has a bit of a wider focus with her subject material, tackling cheating ('What'll Keep Me Out Of Heaven', my personal favourite track) and failing marriages/relationships ('In Some Corner', 'Hungover', 'The Day She Got Divorced', 'Just Like Him') and even pharmaceutical abuse in 'Take A Little Pill'. But more often her songs have a pretty small focus, and have enough intimate detail to be believable as she sings about her target demographic: women who might be a little older or married with kids or divorced. There isn't the same youthful exuberance that Kacey Musgraves brings to the table, instead a lot of quiet resignation, a desire for escape but with enough maturity to know that said escape doesn't always come in the form you'd like it. Songs like 'Get High' might raise eyebrows on the controversy circuit, but there's a distinctive, tired, 'lived-in' feel to that song that gives it a lot of texture regardless of the marijuana reference.

If I'm going to criticize the songwriting topics here, it'd probably be in a few of the 'failing/failed' relationship songs. I'm not sure whether it's the delivery or the fact that the songs don't quite go as dark as they could, but songs like 'Get Crazy' and 'Stripes' come across as a bit goofy and just a little over-the-top, which doesn't really fit well with the rest of the material. And the song that annoyed me the most was 'Illegitimate Children', which talks about couples hooking up and ending the chorus with 'That's how illegitimate children are born' - I dunno, I understand where the moralizing was coming from on that track, but it felt preachy to me and it lacked the rich emotional context that made songs like 'She Thinks His Name Was John' (a song Reba performed in the mid-90s about a woman dying from AIDS) so heartbreaking. Plus, condoms and birth control exist. But these songs are still quite well-written and are certainly passable enough and they don't do much to tarnish how great this album is.

So in the end, I can't say that 12 Stories quite resonates with me on the same level as Kacey Musgraves' Same Trailer, Different Park did, but I'm not surprised by that. As much as I don't like using this excuse, it is an album aimed at a different demographic, and I suspect the little details in Brandy Clark's delivery will definitely hit well to that group. Plus, there's more than enough quality and emotional pathos in Brandy Clark's material, cultivated through her instrumentation, vocals, and lyrics that I can still appreciate and enjoy it, even though it isn't really aimed at me in the same way. For me, that's enough to earn Brandy Clark a good 9/10 and a very solid recommendation from me. If you're a fan of traditional country music and you're willing to try something new (particularly if you're a woman between the ages of twenty-five and up), I can't recommend Brandy Clark's 12 Stories enough. 

And really, I have high hopes that she'll have some success sooner rather than later. The bro-country bubble is already pretty saturated, folks, and when that bursts, I'd love to see acts like Brandy Clark and Kacey Musgraves rise up and take its place.

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