Brandi Carlile – Bear Creek

Brandi Carlile - Bear Creek

Brandi Carlile's Bear Creek album cover

On Brandi Carlile‘s fourth album Bear Creek, she completely changes direction from the sound of her previous records. Rather than trying to recreate that epic pop/rock sound that occupied much of those albums, she instead focuses on nostalgia as she pulls at the familiar feeling of the good old downhome.

While her music has always had that natural essence of traditional and folky elements to them, many of the songs on her previous albums, especially The Story (2007), followed a similar style that began to tire itself out once Give Up The Ghost (2009) was released. Bear Creek loses a lot of that and takes a more intimate look at the music itself, how it’s created and the resulting sound, all of which are combined for a wonderful sense of nostalgia.

The song Keep Your Heart Young, particularly, is a trip down memory lane with the message of not letting go of your youthfulness if you can help it. “Don’t trade in that tic-tac box for a ball at the end of a chain/And don’t go spendin’ Grandpa’s pennies buying into the game.” In addition to the to-the-point lyrics which take specific childhood memories, the melody takes a classic, elegant yet simple approach in its delivery. Ultimately, it’s the melodies of these songs that make Bear Creek such a treat.

Brandi has a knack for creating distinctive melodies that allow each and every song to be differentiated from the others right away. It was one of the first things I noticed with The Story and once again with this record. From the very first listen, each song has its own charm that fits in with the rest of the record but still stands apart as a strong piece of the album.

In addition to the lyrics and the melody of the album drumming up nostalgia, the recording, production and packaging contributes as well. While the mix itself is clean, the songs sound authentic without unnecessary production. Brandi’s vocals, at times, sound like they’re reaching an audio peak, resulting in some mild vocal distortion, perhaps an homage to the sound of old style recordings. The album itself is named after the recording studio in which it is recorded, Bear Creek Studios, a former barn located outside of Seattle while the cover itself is reminiscent of covers from 60s and 70s country records.

The first several tracks are foot stompers and hand clappers with fitting backing vocals from Brandi’s band. Hard Way Home and Raise Hell offer a particularly strong beginning to the record that may be cause for concern that the rest of the album won’t be able to live up to. But with each passing track, concern fades. 100, the poppiest song on here, provides a sombre look at the possibility of never fulfilling one of your strongest desires, “I always make my wishes for the same thing every time/If I live to be 100/if I ever get it right.”

The final tracks differ from the folksy sounds of the beginning. Rise Again is a guitar-backed rocker in the vain of Bonnie Raitt while In The Morrow embraces a lighter country sound that would be familiar to fans of the last Dixie Chicks album. The last song, Just Kids, is dreamy like a Bon Iver recording and unlike anything she’s recorded before. Don’t let the comparisons dissuade you from their greatness, however, as they are merely reference points for the songs themselves.

Brandi has succeeded in making an album that doesn’t succumb to those outside wishes of earning a radio hit or winning mainstream success in a climate where producers trump musicians. Bear Creek is the most consistent album in her discography thus far. Where her previous albums have had their ups and downs, Bear Creek is one high point. It’s the album Brandi was made to create. Five stars

1. Hard Way Home
2. Raise Hell
3. Save Part Of Yourself
4. That Wasn’t Me
5. Keep Your Heart Young
6. 100
7. A Promise To Keep
8. I’ll Still Be There
9. What Did I Ever Come Here For
10. Hearts Content
11. Rise Again
12. In The Morrow
13. Just Kids

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