The resounding success of Adele in 2011 should have been encouraging to passionate singers like Brandi Carlile who have been marginalized by the advent of overpolished, overproduced stars.
That’s not to say the alt-country vocalist will have an Adele-sized breakthrough with her new “Bear Creek,” but at least it seems feasible now.
Like her previous releases, Carlile’s fifth is gutsy and expressive, both earthy and elegant. The native of Washington state can rattle the beams with her belted soul, yet it’s her grace that makes the strongest impression.
Trina Shoemaker (Sheryl Crow, Queens of the Stone Age) produces the gritty “Bear Creek,” capitalizing on Carlile’s unflinching delivery and playing off the singer’s adaptability to timeless rock, country, folk and pop. And the songs are balanced: Bossy arrangements are shaded with delicate touches while low-key tracks are typically scuffed up just a tad. Rollicking clap-along stomper “Hard Way Home” is nuanced with a steel-band air, “That Wasn’t Me” picks up a gospel tone with its piano and choir, and “Just Kids” is a satisfying epic of a closer with an ethereal orchestration that lays the foundation for Carlile’s uncharacteristic otherworldly vocals.
There are also music signatures on “Bear Creek,” such as the repeated use of dovetailing backing vocals that mimic the sound of a distant train (“Hard Way Home,” “Save Part of Yourself,” “Rise Again”).
Nothing’s more distinct than Carlile herself as she punctuates her vocals with emotional vibrato in the arcing long notes of the chugging “Raise Hell” and deploys surprisingly touching yodels in “I’ll Still Be There.”
“Bear Creek” is also awash in memorable lyrics, as Carlile swings from facetious escapism — “I wanna leave this town, fake my death and never be found” (“Hard Way Home”) — to the heartbreak of unrequited love — “If I live to be 100, will I ever cross your mind?” (“100”).
Although Carlile slides a bit into momentum dips on some slower tracks, “Bear Creek” is usually on solid ground.
Rating: 4 stars (out of five)
© 2012, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
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