Saturday, June 18, 2016

album review: 'big day in a small town' by brandy clark

It should not be as easy to overlook Brandy Clark as it seems to be.

Now that's a bit of a weird statement, especially if you've coming from the country underground and have heard her name praised to high heavens, especially for her solo debut 12 Stories in 2013 that was easily one of the best albums of that year... and yet I bet if you mentioned her to your average country fan, you'd be lucky to find anyone who recognizes her name. And that genuinely sucks, because Brandy Clark isn't just one of the smartest and most nuanced songwriters in modern country, known for racking up credits behind Kacey Musgraves, Miranda Lambert and even Reba McEntire, but also a powerful performer in her own right with a stunning voice and real stage presence. The word of the game is subtlety - Kacey Musgraves might be a little flashier, and arguably a little catchier, but Brandy Clark brought real gravitas and grounded humanity to much of her material that tended to stick with you. Sadly, she's also reached forty, which means the image-obsessed mainstream country radio wants nothing to do with her, and even her label's stabs at pushing her to towards the mainstream have been ignored. And this strikes me as completely asinine, because one of the special things about country is that it can play to an older demographic to whom Brandy Clark would probably be a huge breath of fresh air!

But putting aside the marketing, it does look like Brandy Clark's career is gaining traction - she landed one of the best songs on the instant classic Southern Family compilation from Dave Cobb, and she landed as an opening act for Eric Church, who seems to be working overtime to restore his indie country cred with both a great album and pulling underrated talent on tour. And with Brandy Clark, she's even joined by producer Jay Joyce, who also seems to be working overtime on reputation repair. Now I'll admit I've softened on Joyce a bit - it was clear he was the biggest factor to keeping quality with Cage The Elephant, and his work with Brothers Osborne and Eric Church over the past eight months has been considerably stronger - but I wasn't sure how well he'd balance with Brandy Clark's voice, and let's face it: he's no Dave Cobb. But that didn't mean I wasn't going to cover a sophomore album that was bound to be great, so I dug into Big Day In A Small Town - what did I find?

Well, I got pretty much exactly what I expected, because this is a damn great record. Maybe a shade weaker than 12 Stories - we'll get to why in a bit - but Big Day In A Small Town by Brandy Clark is the sort of smartly written, excellently framed and nuanced country music that's easy to like. The biggest changes come in production and scope, and while I'll definitely say that Jay Joyce doesn't quite consistently stick the landing, it's definitely one of the more subtle and balanced projects in his discography and shows him on the right path. And really, this review does kind of fall into two parts, as i get the odd impression that Joyce is trying to reconcile his typical production instincts to work with Clark's writing, who is distinctly more nuanced and cutting than much of the broad strokes that Joyce has utilized in the past, and while that tension did lead to some great tracks, it also means there are moments that don't quite hold together.

And we're going to start with the production because for as much as I've ragged on Jay Joyce in the past, he has improved by leaps and bounds and records like this one and Eric Church's Mr. Misunderstood are the proof of it. Yeah, he cranks up the percussion a little heavier than I'd normally prefer and his lack of subtlety means that there are instrumental moments that hit with a broader punch than they should, but there are definitely steps in the right direction here, mostly because Brandy Clark has enough firepower as a singer to meet him halfway. It helps that she's got her own broader moments like on the huge banjo-driven hook of 'Soap Opera', the sizzling country-funk of 'Broke' with the gurgling bassline, or the big bass drum hits and backing vocals of the title track, and that's before we get the raw fury behind 'Girl Next Door' with its choppy looped guitar, stellar melody line, sandy percussion that builds into a synth-touched hook that may have benefited from a slightly sharper electric guitar line. The funny thing is that when this album slows down Joyce has a good enough command of depth and atmosphere to make the gentle midtempo acoustics of 'Homecoming Queen' or the sparse piano ballad of 'You Can Come Over' or the bass-touched acoustics on 'Three Kids No Husband' or the haunted emptiness of the heartbreaking album closer 'Since You've Gone To Heaven'. But then there's 'Daughter', which actually has Kacey Musgraves contributing backing vocals... and I'll be blunt, for as much as I like the song and enjoyed Brandy Clark trying for a Lindi Ortega sound, it also shows just how out of his depth Jay Joyce is when trying to replicate a more organic country sound. There's a difference between sounding weathered and organic and just sounding dated, and for as much as I can appreciate 'Daughter', it falls into the latter category. 

And yeah, this is where we get the big elephant in the room: as much as i appreciate Brandy Clark trying to keep to a more polished sound that might have a chance in hell at hitting mainstream radio. with rare exception I can point to her performance on 'I Cried' off of Southern Family and say that she's way better in that lane. And I know that's not fair to Jay Joyce who is clearly trying, he's not Dave Cobb, and I've always found Brandy Clark most compelling when her production can at least match the subtlety of the writing. Dave Brainard got that for the most part when he produced 12 Stories, and I'm not quite sure Joyce is there as a producer. But then again, I'd also make the comment that by trying to meet him in the middle, I'm a little less impressed by Brandy Clark's writing on this record. And for the most part this isn't her fault: she's a damn great songwriter with an ear for flow and meter and a knack for some incredibly clever and well-framed writing... that I've heard consistently for the past five years, either on her records or by proxy. And again, there's not a bad song on this album, but I would argue Clark is treading ground she's touched before, and in comparison with 12 Stories, it's not quite as sharp or original.

Now again, none of that is saying the writing is bad - far from it. Brandy Clark is a storyteller and she's got a knack for painting pretty vivid, powerful images and writing complex and detailed characters. And of course there's a strong feminist bent to the writing, but it's a much more mature picture than you get with the broad glitzy strokes of Carrie Underwood or even the carefree earnestness of Kacey Musgraves - although with songs like 'Girl Next Door' she proves she's just as capable of a cutting anthem than anyone else. To put it bluntly, the small-town women Clark writes about are often older, more tired, and are stuck in the sort of hopeless conditions where there's no comfortable answer. So the comedy of songs like 'Broke', the title track and 'Daughter' is pitch black, in the latter case hoping the guy who screwed her over and then lied about her to everyone in town has daughters so he can experience the sort of fear when guys like him go after them - yeah, kind of perpetuating an analogous system but it is played more for a joke so I'm tentatively okay with it. But make no mistake here: one of Brandy Clark's biggest strengths is her ability to not pull punches in honestly framed songs, and that's why the faded dreams of 'Homecoming Queen', the ashes of a old flame on 'You Can Come Over', and the loneliness of the mother on 'Three Kids No Husband' hit with such impact. And then there's 'Since You've Gone To Heaven' as the closer which is a gutting track, the sort of downer ending that shows the lingering decay that can happen after a major loss in the family rips things asunder. And the weight that the death carries colors how Clark sees the world around her, with the small town decay in even sharper relief as the family struggles to move on - there will be plenty of comparisons drawn to 'I Cried', but I reckon this song is actually better.

But what this album reminded me of more than anything was another underappreciated modern country record from Jennifer Nettles, Playing With Fire. And yeah, some of that is inevitable - Brandy Clark cowrote most of that album - but Big Day In A Small Town is really the darker side of the same coin. Where Nettles was more comfortable in pop with optimistic dreams going forward, Clark is more realistic and sees just how those dreams can fall short. And for me, both albums are incredibly close when it comes to quality, because Big Day In A Small Town is excellent. I feel that both of these records are going to get underappreciated because country radio doesn't know what the hell it's doing and Clark is writing more mature music than it can handle - but that doesn't mean there isn't an audience who loves great writing, a fiery performance, and production that might have a few missteps but only in comparison with some of the best country released in recent memory. As such, it's a strong 8/10 and most certainly a recommendation. Folks, if country radio isn't going to play Brandy Clark, I'm still going to make a point of championing it, so definitely check this out!

1 comment:

  1. Glad you loved this, I was praying you'd compare the closing track and 'I Cried', glad you touched on it