From the moment I first saw her on a small stage at SXSW 2005 - hell, "small stage" is kind, as she was actually stuck in the antiseptic lounge of a high-rise hotel, 18 floors above the hustle and bustle of Sixth Street - it was undeniable that singer/songwriter Brandi Carlile had both the singing and the songwriting to make her a star. Her vocals were the essence of purity, yet they had enough melancholy to hint at a deeper life led by the then 23-year-old from Seattle. Similarly, her music and lyrics were pleasingly direct but leavened with enough melodic twists and narrative turns to point toward a rich, developing talent.
The EP she gave away free that night, Acoustic, included three songs that spoke of her bittersweet charm: "Throw It All Away," "Tragedy," and "Fall Apart Again," the last one written by "The Twins," her simpatico accompanists Phil and Tim Hanseroth. Those songs reappeared, acoustic/electric, as the cornerstones of Carlile's self-titled debut album - and the rest of that CD was built on similarly strong material, from the chin-up "Follow" to the brave-face "Happy."
Her new album, The Story, opens with the same organic sound on "Late Morning Lullaby," and some typically trenchant words: "As soon as my eyes shut, the slide show begins / Yesterday is gone now and panic sets in / With a weight upon my chest and a ghost upon my back / And the numbing sensation of everything I lack." Then there's "Josephine," done in one take with Brandi and The Twins around one microphone - and here's where the album's largely live-to-tape recording, produced by T Bone Burnett, comes across most vividly. It's also one of the songs that express Carlile's main themes of loss, absence, and longing: "Take me back, Josephine, to that cold and dark December / I am missing someone, but I don't know who." Throughout these and other highlights like "Shadow on the Wall" and "Turpentine," the attractive melodies tug at your heart like a sad lover tugging at your sleeve.
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