Every time I see the name Brandi Carlile, who along with Tim and Phil Hanseroth has been making fine, critically acclaimed music for 15 years, I think of an anecdote Marissa Moss told about three years ago. At a concert, a chap who didn’t know who she was gradually grew interested in Brandi’s music. ‘Hot damn,’ he began and by the end of the gig he was yelling ‘HOT DAMN! HOT DAMN!’ Even Brandi herself saw the message, which coincided with the success of her album By The Way, I Forgive You.
I had a similar reaction when I saw a video of her song The Joke, which I felt put her in the Jason Isbell class of contemporary performer. Country radio won’t touch her as she uses weird phrasing and long words, but satellite radio and Radio 2 have loved her. Like Radiohead, listeners hopped along for the ride and have embraced what she and the twins have been doing, which was a sort of definitive, emotion-and-storyteller American music like John Prine, Dean Dillon or Tom T Hall. The Eye (‘you can dance in a hurricane but only if you’re standing in the eye’) was my introduction to her sound, which had Brandi and the twins harmonising beautifully with lyrics about survival.
Since then she has definitely become the Mom figure of the genre known as Americana; with the passing of her hero John, Brandi keeps the pilot light flickering for a genre that barely existed when she started out, a genre of misfit toys for people without a genre, like her good friend Yola and the likes of Amythyst Kiah. Unsurprisingly, Brandi was named Artist of the Year (beating Isbell) at the Americana Awards recently, regaining the title she won in 2019 (beating Mavis Staples!). In 2018 she had lost out to John himself. She was also a quarter of the Highwomen, touring with the ladies and putting out a wonderful album.
And so, with relatively little fanfare, Brandi’s new album comes to market. She has a fan in Stephen Colbert, on whose Late Show she performed Hello In There as a tribute to John and promoted her memoir Broken Horses, in which she told her story of growing up and learning who she was. She has the iconoclast badge thrust upon her because there aren’t many openly gay parents in country music, but she is truly blazing the same trail that kd lang, Lucinda Williams and Isbell all blazed.
Right On Time was the impact track from the album, a torch ballad that may well become a modern standard. As she had done on The Joke, she addresses someone directly (‘of course you are…you’re the strongest person in the room’) and delivers a quivering vocal over a piano line which follows her vocal. More layers are added as the song continues and this will pack a punch when she tours the album. She and the twins head to Carnegie Hall in November to perform Joni Mitchell’s album Blue.
It’s hard not to think of Joni when you hear You and Me on the Rock, featuring duo Lucius, which is a love song featuring lashings of harmony. The middle eight is particularly good. When You’re Wrong also flutters and talks about time passing (‘tomorrow you’re a ghost…you forgot yourself so long ago’) in a manner of which Joni would approve. The album closes with Throwing Good After Bad, a song about grief and love. The use of the word ‘coyote’ must be another allusion to Joni, who had a song with that title.
I wonder if Brandi will join Joni in the pantheon of singer/songwriters. A song like Stay Gentle, which may close her gigs until the end of time, is a positive example. Instead of hardening the heart with age, why not stay innocent, she asks. It’s a deliberately simple song in the same tenor as Somewhere Over The Rainbow. Conversely, the political Sinners, Saints and Fools references immigration and doing things ‘by the book’. It’s a thesis in a song, with the album’s rockiest moments. Brandi has added Shooter Jennings to the production team thanks to their work on Tanya Tucker’s last album, which means Dave Cobb has a buddy at the desk.
Brandi’s memoir gives the song Broken Horses its title, and seems to distil Brandi’s credo in a song. There is plenty of lyricism: we get ‘puppetmaster’s rules’, ‘lukewarm water’ and ‘tried and weathered woman’ who is ‘tethered in wide open spaces’ over a bluesy progression (see what I mean by long words that would put off country radio listeners). She told Stereogum that she doesn’t really do emotions except onstage, where she channels them into her music. This might be her gift.
This Time Tomorrow is about ageing, perhaps a song to Brandi’s children that doubles as a song to any grieving listener: ‘You will know what it means to be lost and without love’ is a killer, true line, which is followed by cooing harmonies from Brandi and the twins. Mama Werewolf is another song rich in poetic language: ‘long, sharp teeth’, ‘river of fear’, ‘moon shines through those parting clouds’, ‘my silver bullet in the gun’, ‘they fought the beast I feel within’…It’s very John Prine or John Cash, even Bob Dylan, though I am sure Brandi would shrug those comparisons off.
Letter To The Past, the song which will become known as the ‘stone wall in a world of rubber bands’ song, includes more advice to ‘let it go’ over piano chords. I reckon it will follow The Joke in her live shows to bring the pace down. I hope to go see her and the twins if and when she comes to the UK in 2022.