Along with the newest album from Brandi Carlile, I review two projects that have been sitting in my backlog for far too long. Anyway, onward!
Jade Bird, Different Kinds of Light
I really should be more on the ball with covering artists who have made my year-end lists before in a timely matter (I’ll get to that Rod Gator album eventually…), because I came across Jade Bird in 2019 through her self-titled project and found a performer worth the investment. Yes, the influences ranging to pretty much everyone from Alanis Morisette to Brandi Carlile were fairly obvious, but Bird was an explosive presence in her own right that lent her brand of folk-rock a ton of unbridled passion. And as for where she goes on her follow-up project … well, it’s a bit easier to place overall, for better and worse.
If anything, this is a release that pretty much defies even the broad categorization of “Americana” and plays to a lot of throwback pop-rock tones that have been gaining popularity and traction over the past year and a half, mostly indebted to Fleetwood Mac. And while that could work for Bird, this is just an album that has the basic foundation to work well yet feels wholly less unique and distinct as a whole for her. For one, those rougher edges of her delivery are pretty much nonexistent here, thanks to production that pretty much smooths everything over here from her to the guitars, as well as her voice never feeling like it’s properly placed right in the mix. She’s a vocalist who should be right out front to deliver those full-throated howls, and yet it feels like she’s buried in the midrange pretty much throughout this entire project. And that’s basically an issue with production as well, where the hooks and grooves are noticeable and very potent on more than a few occasions, but never feel like they get to open up as much as they could or ever let these moments soar or showcase more dynamic swell. At best you’ll get some decent harmonica to add a bit of rollick to “Prototype,” and when the bass grooves do get to shine – and there are more moments than I expected here – you get infectious tracks like “Open Up The Heavens,” “Punchline,” “Trick Mirror” and “Rely On” that are all pretty much living and dying by their hooks, melodies and grooves and little else.
Which is also to say that I’m just not as impressed with the songwriting this time around, which mostly falls into a one-note category of Bird expressing her frustrations over flighty lovers who are too immature to commit to the real thing. And at 15 tracks, that wears thin all too quickly, especially when you get clunkier turns of phrases in “Houdini” or the trashy curdled garage rock of “1994” that really should have been left off entirely. When she adds a bit more bite to her presentation and essentially delivers a kiss-off in, again, to name off the highlights, “Open Up the Heavens” or “Punchline,” it’s a good fit. But it’s a bloated listen lacking in greater identity and personality to really call an overall triumph.
- Favorite tracks: “Open Up the Heavens,” “Punchline,” “Trick Mirror,” “Rely On”
- Least favorite track: “Houdini”
Luke Burkhardt, Postcard
Speaking of albums I should have covered months ago, we have a debut album from an artist who works as a nurse practitioner by day and was originally put on my radar by my friend and frequent collaborator, Nathan Kanuch (of Shore2Shore Country). After saying I’d get to this eventually for far too long, I’m now kicking myself for not doing it sooner, because this is an insanely impressive debut. And considering most of my favorite releases of the year thus far have come from new discoveries, this is absolutely another one that joins the ranks and puts Luke Burkhardt in a category of his own.
Criticisms first, though. While I won’t say Burkhardt is a technically impressive performer or has a naturally anchored flow quite yet, I do think his craggier vocal style reminiscent of, say, Ryan Bingham and Jay Farrar adds a real potency and earnestness to a lot of his delivery and gives it the sort of subtly lived-in detail I ended up appreciating quite a bit. Granted, that’s more of a note on the content itself, but before I get to that I want to highlight the overall sound and production, which at first glance plays to a familiarly barren and atmospheric sound that’s been gaining traction in the independent scene for a few years now. But this is, thankfully, also an album with real rollick and groove to it courtesy of the driving stabs of dobro, splashy acoustics, and pedal steel, as well as tones that feel fuller and rounded to add an urgency to this album it greatly benefits from in terms of its tone and pacing. It’s atmospheric, but in a way that really lets the album breathe and the mood settle rather than oversaturate it or, on the other hand, make it feel too lacking in distinctive presence or personality.
Like with most independent country gems, though, the real star of the show is the writing, which reminded me of Ruston Kelly in the way this album paints achingly desperate scenes with a surprising level of reliability. And like Kelly, there’s an optimism to these stories between the lines that adds a spirit and fight to this project. Burkhardt’s take, however, is more character-driven, meaning that he can sketch some really harrowing scenes without letting that darkness consume the album and get a bit more creative with the overall arc. Indeed, these are characters that have hit rock bottom but still want to live to see the day where they become the best versions of themselves, even if that day is all too far away. From a dope addict father pondering whether or not his son would be better off without him to lead his own path in life and not repeat his sins on “Baptism” to a couple clearly on opposite sides of one another on where their relationship is heading when one partner is too self-destructive to fully commit on “Anniversary,” this album is heavy from the start. And yet you get to a more direct track from those kinds of characters on “The Ones I Have Left” trying to keep their heads above water and it adds another dimension to this album that feels fully realized, even at just seven tracks.
Of course, it’s not all about addiction or even self-destruction. Sometimes the sins are handed down to us through actions made by others, like the rural townspeople on “That Ain’t My Home” that see their homes – and, consequently, a part of themselves – get lost to gentrification. And sometimes those sins just aren’t as obvious when there’s no party necessarily in the wrong. I really loved the ending title track for that reason, a tale of infrequent encounters between two musician friends that always plan to catch up with one another and just never find the time to, only for the one friend to eventually die of cancer and leave those words left unsaid between them. And the quiet guilt left by the friend still there resonates because of it. That’s the main motif of this project in general: regrets and the unlikely second chances that will come to anyone – sinner or saint – where the main question becomes, how do you use them after the dust settles? And really, outside of the clunkier, undercooked “Good Intentions,” this is a project that packs a lot into its short runtime and doesn’t leave a word wasted or feel lacking in what it’s trying to say. In other words, it’s a strong debut worth seeking out.
- Favorite tracks: “Baptism,” “Anniversary,” “The Ones I Have Left,” “This Ain’t My Home,” “Postcard”
- Least favorite track: “Good Intentions”
Brandi Carlile, In These Silent Days
Considering her involvement in the Highwomen collective as well as her role behind the scenes as a producer for acts like Tanya Tucker, The Secret Sisters, and Candi Carpenter – along with penning a memoir, among other things – it’s almost easy to forget that we haven’t received a proper Brandi Carlile studio album in nearly three and a half years. Now, I’m not one of those people, especially when Carlile’s most recent projects were some of her strongest to date and she had steamrolled that momentum to craft excellent work with the aforementioned Highwomen.
And I really wish I could say it’s all led to her best project to date with this comeback, but I’m not nearly as high on this as I’d like to be. I’ve seen some critics call this her “Elton John” album in the way that a lot of these tones and production recall his own work in its near-theatrical presentation – especially in that chipper acoustic melody driving “You and Me on the Rock” that I really like – but her penchant for dramatic flair in the overall presentation and sound hearkens back to at least The Story, and thus it puts this album in an odd place for me. On one hand, between the obvious callbacks in places to icons like the aforementioned John and Joni Mitchell that I can’t deny as well a track dedicated to her own vitality and spirit named after her aforementioned memoir in “Broken Horses” this feels like a passion project almost by design. But those are tracks mostly standing alongside power ballads that, to be blunt, feel like Carlile operating in her comfort zone and trying to recreate the best moments from By the Way, I Forgive You and The Firewatcher’s Daughter and not really getting there. Part of it has to do with an overall shift in the writing, which is oddly enough where I hear the shift most in poetry aiming for big, sweeping statements, even at the cost of the more specific details to really anchor them or make them feel more distinct as a whole; “Right on Time” tries, but it’s no “Party of One” as far as regretful ballads go.
Granted, Carlile can carry them to a large extent, and if there’s anything that makes this sound wholly her own, it’s her strengths as a performer. Her raw and rougher vocal timbre has always lent a natural gravitas to her work, and hearing her snarl as she stands up for herself on “Broken Horses” alongside those biting southern-rock tones easily provides the album highlight here. She repeats it for “Sinners, Saints, and Fools,” which reads more like a vague comment on religion’s role in modern society that meanders in its metaphor and greatly disappoints with that ending solo … or rather, a lack of one. But even when flipping the script for “You and Me on the Rock” – which is an utterly joyful look at finding maximum happiness through someone rather than something and feels like it could be one of the few possible pandemic-inspired songs to really work – there’s a weariness to her delivery that suggests how the fight to get there was worth it. But you also have a lot of tasteful piano ballads that, while pleasant, don’t feel as sharp as past Carlile tracks in this vein, especially in their explorations of broken relationships that feel oddly abortive and lacking in greater punch. I like the rickety acoustics anchoring “Mama Werewolf” well enough for a touch of murkiness, but honestly I think I like the simpleness of “Stay Gentle” even more as something akin to a lullaby that works better as a tribute to her children. And that’s the weird paradox of this album; it goes overboard in its scope and ideas far too often but feels undercooked in the actual execution. It’s still good to have her back, but it’s another project in 2021 that leaves me much colder than I’d prefer.
- Favorite tracks: “Broken Horses,” “You and Me On the Rock,” “Mama Werewolf,” “Stay Gentle”
- Least favorite track: “Right On Time”