Brandy Clark – self-titled
Brandy Clark is the songwriter supremo whom it either seems people love or don’t yet love because they’ve not heard of her. After collaborating with Brandi Carlile on their song Same Devil, Brandy chose Brandi to produce her fourth album.
This is a winning formula akin to how Manchester City have brought in Erling Haaland and are about to win three trophies barring a catastrophe. Brandy Clark is a frequent visitor to the UK and has a musical called Shucked on Broadway; Brandi Carlile is the leading exponent of Joniana, which is North American folk music influenced by her hero Joni Mitchell. Together, it’s hard to see how this album can fail, or fail to move people.
There were three teasers released before the whole album was. Buried’s narrator seems to be waiting for the end of things but she promises never to stop loving that person, which makes the stabs of ‘if’ even more heartbreaking. Both Buried and Northwest were written with Jessie Jo Dillon, the latter being a tempo track that kicks off the album’s second side and reminds listeners that Brandy is a lady from Washington state, where the ‘compass in my heart still points’.
There’s a nice chunky string quartet running through several keys at the end of that song, which segues into She Smoked in the House, a song Lori McKenna could have written that is full of details about Brandy’s grandma – the Sears catalogue, Pepsi over Coke – and references to plenty of old country stars including Merle, Loretta and Buck Owens. Then there’s an eight-bar dobro solo.
Brandi Carlile’s buddies Lucius provide harmonies on Tell Her You Don’t Love Her (‘even if it’s a lie’), one of those songs of advice from a third party (and whose melody will remind you of That’s Amore). She turns her scorn on herself on All Over Again with its ‘hate you, hate you’ hook. You can hear Brandi on backing vocals there and elsewhere, and Brandi lends her voice out front to Dear Insecurity, a ballad which will chime with many of the pair’s fellow fortysomethings. The final verse, which is a hell of a punch, is proof that maturity is a key weapon in a songwriter’s armoury.
Bringing in guitar wizard Derek Trucks for the murder ballad Ain’t Enough Rocks is a good move, just as smart as putting it as the album’s opening track for maximum impact. Elsewhere, Brandy’s pals Trevor Rosen and Shane McAnally were in the room for Come Back To Me, a series of invitations to someone to do their thing because, as Brandy sings, ‘I don’t want to hold you back’. The influence of The Band, who founded what is now called Americana, is evident on Best Ones, a disguised wedding song with plenty of harmonica that sounds timeless.
Lucie Silvas co-writes closing track Take Mine, which I am sure many will point out could have fitted on the Shucked soundtrack thanks to its showstopping nature. With a musical on Broadway and a tour for this fantastic fourth album, I hope Brandy Clark remembers to savour the latest chapter of a brilliant career.
Marty Stuart and the Fabulous Superlatives – Altitude
Marty Stuart is one of the most significant custodians of country music. When he’s not preparing his Mississippi museum of country or popping up on Ken Burns’ TV series, he’s the MC of the quartet I caught in recent visits to both Country2Country and The Long Road. No British act would dare call themselves The Fabulous Superlatives, but in Marty’s case it actually seems like understatement.
This second album as a quartet – Cousin Kenny on guitar, Chris Scruggs on bass, Harry Stinson on drums – follows the 2017 collection Way Out West. There are 11 tracks and three interludes titled Lost Byrd Space Train, so it’s a concept album of sorts.
The musicality is excellent and summarises entire eras of commercial music in America. The title track is good old honky-tonky music full of twang; indeed, the very title sounds perfect for a Buck Owens vocal parody. Vegas could be a Glen Campbell shuffle, Tomahawk a Bob Dylan diatribe (‘there’s absolutely nothing new underneath the sun’), while there are some John Barry strings on The Sun Is Quietly Sleeping.
A lot of this album comes off as homage. Sitting Alone, a song about nothing at all, might intentionally sound like George Harrison, while there are some suitably sitar-sounding effects in the guitar line of Space to go with the Laurel Canyon harmonies. Rockabilly and surf music, art forms which came and went before Marty became a pro in the early 1970s, both arrive on A Friend of Mine, Time To Dance and Nightriding.
Country Star has a splendid descending chromatic chorus for added stickability, while The Angels Came Down (‘for me’) is a rich ballad with Marty close-mic’d for extra gravitas. I imagine he had his old friend and frontman JR Cash in mind when he was recording this. Marty’s life is spent making sure that JR and his contemporaries are never forgotten in this digital age. Carve out some time to listen to Altitude this summer.