There are a number of albums to come out of the last fifty years that are named after recording studios that provided an aura of mystique, a palpable energy, but most importantly a harbor from the frenetic pace of the music industry for their artists. Oftentimes they may not be those musicians’ best work (Elton John’s 1974 LP Caribou
comes to mind), but what they do represent is a moment of connectedness—a moment of artistic growth and expression that is vital to the creative process. Brandi Carlile
’s fourth album Bear Creek
is not her masterpiece so far (that accolade could arguably go to 2009’s Give Up The Ghost
), but it is an incredibly solid offering that showcases Carlile and her band’s honed Americana-twang sound, and while it suffers from poor sequencing and too wide a spread of genre, it also includes some of the best songs of Carlile’s career.
Bear Creek is a studio found near Seattle, WA, but it is tucked away in a secluded rural area, creating a space in which the outside world is essentially cut off because of the natural surroundings. The studios are housed in a converted turn-of-the-century wooden barn, and for many who come to record there, it becomes very much a home away from home. Having played host to such greats as Fleet Foxes, Gossip, Bill Frisell, Blonde Redhead, Foo Fighters and the Mountain Goats, Bear Creek is legendary for bringing out an earthiness and soul to the projects executed in its studios, and Carlile’s album reaffirms that whole-heartedly.
Opening with the deliciously catch folk sing-a-long “Hard Way Home,” Bear Creek
sounds like a fantastic follow-up to Give Up The Ghost
’s “Dying Day.” The song's shuffle, mandolin and organ interplay and warm vocal harmonies make it an immediate favorite, and definitely the best album opener Carlile has had yet. The next track, “Raise Hell,” sounds like it could have easily fit on an older Johnny Cash album, with its barn-storming, foot-stomping country rock-and-roll edge. And while the song definitely hits hard, those who have seen Carlile in concert over the last year may find that it comes across as a little less punchy (especially since it doesn’t have the Secret Sisters on harmony). It seems like Carlile is holding back somewhat with the vocal, unlike its live incarnations, which have her snarling and belting out the choruses in a way that rivals any and all country singer on the scene today. Even so, it’s definitely a rip-roaring and fun way to show her ability to take major musical influences and mix them with her own aesthetic.
The next three songs are more down-tempo, but never lethargic. “Save Part of Yourself” has a great bass line that keeps it moving, and then in the chorus there’s a lovely cadre of hand claps and harmonies that really drive the song home. It’s a lovely addition to her catalogue, and really demonstrates Carlile’s relaxed confidence in her voice and style. “That Wasn’t Me” follows, and while it may sound at first like another in the line of piano-penned ballads (Elton John comes to mind yet again), it blossoms during the chorus with a fleshy bass line and magnificent gospel choir. In fact, “That Wasn’t Me” creates an ache for Carlile to pursue more gospel-infused music, because it’s so perfectly executed. Her expressive voice is full of nuance and power—much like Americana staple Patty Griffin, who recently did a Gospel-inspired album Downtown Church
—and suits the genre beautifully. “That Wasn’t Me” fits squarely next to “The Story” and “Dreams” as Carlile’s best singles.
“Keep Your Heart Young” is where Bear Creek
starts to veer and get a little unstable. After such a powerful four-song introduction, the song is rendered even more of a misstep, which is the first indication that greater care should have been taken with sequencing. The instrumentation and harmonies on “Keep Your Heart Young” are actually fabulous folk/country, with just the right amount of swing and dance-y bass—but it’s the lyrics that make the song so cloying. It’s a nostalgia-ridden piece about maintaining a youthful quality in life, despite aging further and further away from childhood innocence, but it’s too trite to go anywhere.
“100” follows, which is such a radical shift in sound that it really throws you off the course of the album. It’s a pop-forward rocker, with fantastic lyrics and melody, but it’s stripped of any country influence, so it’s a bit of a head-scratcher, placement-wise. In fact, “100” is an excellent song that both fits with Carlile’s earlier work and still comes off as experimental, and would definitely be seen as one of Bear Creek
’s best, if it weren’t situated where it is on the record. Bear Creek
is a demonstration of Carlile and her band’s incredible musical talent, which certainly cements her as one of the leaders in her industry landscape, but it’s also a jumbled mess of genre and poor sequencing. Its constituent parts are first-rate—even songs like “Rise Again” and “In The Morrow” are wonderful expressions of her aesthetic—but they just don’t fit together well. It’s like Carlile decided to strike out on the folk/country path with gusto, only to switch back to pop/rock, then turn around into mandolin-laden ballads, then back to pieces that sound like companions to her sophomore album The Story
, and then to atmospheric impressionism (with the album closer “Just Kids). Taken on their own, these songs are compelling in architecture and execution, and definitely are a step forward for Carlile, but taken as a whole they just don’t fully connect.
If she dropped “Keep Your Heart Young” made an EP of “100,” “I’ll Still Be There” and “Just Kids” and then reordered the album, Bear Creek
would no doubt be Brandi Carlile’s masterpiece. So, maybe it’s not perfect, but that’s great cause for her to keep chipping away at it. What Bear Creek
does show is a musician coming into her own, an artist crafting excellent work at a young age and a woman who is one of the music industry’s rising stars – and rightfully so.