By Eleni P. Austin
Brandi Carlile has come a long way since her 2005 debut. A self-described “queer kid” who grew up in a conservative Christian household in rural Washington state, music quickly became a salvation. Early obsessions included Patsy Cline and Elton John. She made her singing debut at age eight, performing Johnny Cash’s “Tennessee Flat-Top Box.”
By her teens she taught herself piano and also learned guitar. Soon enough, she was writing her own songs. She dropped out of school with the intention of pursuing music full-time. After paying her dues for years in Seattle clubs and coffee houses she connected with twins, Phil and Tim Hansroth. The pair had been playing in the band Flying Machinists. She was so taken with their musical prowess she promised “if you start a band with me, I’ll get us signed and on the road within a year.” In 2003, Dave Matthews caught an early set at a music festival and became an ardent supporter. The following year they signed with Columbia Records. Her self-titled debut was warm and intimate, a sharp amalgam of Country, Rock and Folk, it was powered by Brandi’s powerhouse vocals, the Twins’ adroit musicianship and their combined strength as songwriters. The musical cognoscenti took notice, and the record received rave reviews. Also paying attention were Heavy-hitters like T-Bone Burnett, who produced her second album and Rick Rubin, who was behind the boards on her third effort. Critical acclaim remained unanimous, and her music gained exposure on TV series like Grey’s Anatomy and several cheesy Nicolas Sparks’ movies. Her fifth long-player, The Firewatcher’s Daughter received a Grammy nomination for Best Americana Album.
By 2018, she connected with Dave Cobb who had been making a name for himself by producing Rival Sons, Shooter Jennings, Sturgill Simpson, Chris Stapleton, Jason Isbell and Lori McKenna. Partnering with Shooter Jennings, the pair produced Brandi’s By The Way, I Forgive You. The watershed record not only popped up on myriad Top 10 lists, it hit #5 on the Billboard Top 200. It also garnered six Grammy nominations; including Record of The Year and Song of The Year (it won Best Americana Album, Best American Roots Song and Best American Roots Performance).
Along with Amanda Shires, Maren Morris and Natalie Hemby, Brandi co-founded the distaff Country-Rock super group, The Highwaywomen, who’s self-titled debut arrived in late 2019. She and Shooter also found time to produce Tanya Tucker’s 25th studio album, While I’m Livin which netted Tanya her first Grammy since 1991. By the end of the year, Brandi was onstage at Disney Hall in Los Angeles, performing Joni Mitchell’s epochal Blue album front-to-back. It was a triumphant performance made all the sweeter because both Elton John and the doyenne of Laurel Canyon, Joni herself, were in the audience cheering her on.
When the pandemic hit, she hunkered down at home with her wife Catherine and their young daughters, and wrote her memoir, Broken Horses. By turns candid, funny, poignant self-effacing and introspective, the book revealed Brandi to be a talented author. The book debuted at #1 on the New York Times non-fiction Best Seller list. Once the book was done, she and the Twins were back at it, creating 10 indelible songs. Soon enough they entered the studio with again with Dave and Shooter and the result is her seventh long-player, In These Silent Days. The record opens with the bravura turn of “Right On Time.” Burnished piano chords connect with intimate vocals, catching Brandi mid-conversation. Initially apologetic; “Come back now, even if you call me out, you might be angry now, of course you are/I’m scared too, didn’t mean to take it out on you, I know I always do, you’re the strongest person in the room,” there’s an undercoat of unrepentance beneath the contrition. A bedrock beat falls in line on the second verse, along with swooshy electric riff-age, strummy acoustic notes, wily bass lines and churchy organ, as she quietly asserts “I don’t take it back, I did what I had to do.” The Rock & Roll gets somewhat rococo on the break, swelling to a stunning instrumental apogee, echoing the flair and flamboyance of Elton and Freddie Mercury. But Brandi’s acrobatic vocals have the final word, as she somersaults over the arrangement and sticks the landing.
Written at the height of the pandemic, several songs navigate emotional minefield that compulsory Covid confinement can create. They also revisit and reevaluate old psychic wounds. Take “You And Me On The Rock,” the jingle-jangle acoustic riffs that start it off, recall the fleet dulcimer notes that characterized “Carey,” (one of the sweetest songs in Joni Mitchell’s oeuvre). Cascading piano notes, a wash of organ, tensile bass and a propulsive beat augment the buoyant melody. She avoids the outside world, where her every move is scrutinized; “Nobody asks why she’s looking so thin, why she’s laughing so hard, why she’s drinking again..” she basks in the simple pleasures of domesticity; “I build my house up upon this rock, Baby, every day with you, there’s nothing in that town I need after everything we’ve been through/Me out in my garden and you out on your walk, is all the distance this poor girl can take without listening to you talk, I don’t need their money, baby, just you and me on the rock.” A testament to faith and family, the song is ridiculously irresistible.
Conversely, there’s “When You’re Wrong,” which opens tentatively, just plucked guitar strings and Brandi’s plaintive voice. Spare and skeletal, the melancholy melody mirrors the lyrics’ embittered rapprochement. Estrangement, anger and pain quietly coexist with acceptance and empathy; “You may be here today, but tomorrow you’re a ghost, I guess the most anyone can hope for is to find a place to lay, someone to tell your secrets to when the nights get long and blue/Someone strong enough to lean on when the roses fall away, strong enough to love you when you’re wrong.”
The inspiration behind “Stay Gentle” came about through her friendships with artistic titans like Joni, Kris Kristofferson, Mavis Staples and the late John Prine, as well as the tenderness exhibited by her youngest daughter. Feathery acoustic guitars lattice atop supple electric riffs. loose-limbed bass and shadowy keys. A Folk-flavored lullaby it offers some hard-won wisdom; “Stay gentle, keep the eyes of a child, don’t harden your heart or your hands, know to find joy in the darkness is wise, although they will think/Don’t let the world make you callous, be ready to laugh, no one’s forgotten about us, there is light on your path.” It’s a sweet and affectionate encomium.
On a record stacked with superlative tracks, stand-outs include “Letter To The Past” a wistful piano ballad that addresses her younger self, as well as her older daughter, who has inherited some of Brandi’s headstrong impulses. It also makes no apologies. Stately piano notes wrap around her powerful contralto for the first couple verses until the instrumentation is buoyed by honeyed acoustic guitars, an array of keys, thumpy bass, a rock-steady beat and Gospel-inflected backing vocals. She quietly imparts some coping mechanisms she never got as a kid; “You can cry, you know it’s always okay to cry, you don’t even need to know why, but don’t you ever feel alone inside, if you need to know the truth, I still haven’t got a clue, if the blind can lead the blind, then baby, I’m just like you.” Piano and Wurlitzer partner for a graceful pas de deux on the break. Vocally, Brandi opens up the throttle, soaring over the reined in instrumentation.
On “This Time Tomorrow” sunshiny acoustic guitars, septa-toned keys, sinewy bass and a tip-toe beat cocoon Brandi and the Twins’ ethereal croon. The lyrics offer a soupcon of spirituality divorced from the hypocritical, um, rigid confines of organized religion with no apologies; “When the hope that you hold tightly to has all but vanished, and there are no words of comfort to be found, you will know what it means to be lost and without love, may you fight to kill that deafening sound/But our holy dreams of yesterday aren’t gone, they still haunt us like the ghosts of Babylon, and the breaking of the day might bring you sorrow, you know I may not be around tomorrow, but I’ll always be with you.”
Finally, “Broken Horses” (which takes its name from her brilliant memoir), connects the dots of her childhood. Giving herself permission to be angry while gaining some much-needed perspective, she kind of cuts loose. Braided acoustic riffs give way to shards of electric guitar and driving piano, tethered to coltish bass lines and a galloping beat. Brandi’s banshee wail rides roughshod over the arrangement. Lyrically, she pulls no punches offering a stinging rebuke; “I have ever so politely treaded softly for your grace, I have whispered through the tears and pleaded sweetly to your face, it’s time to spit you out like lukewarm water from my mouth, I will always taste the apathy, but I won’t pass it down, it dies with you.” It’s an epic track that shapeshifts from crunchy, ‘70s AOR, as a serpentine guitar slithers through the verses, and the chorus winnows down to a willowy lament. Downshifting completely on the break, the instrumentation is reconstructed, brick-by-brick until it builds to a shattering cri de Coeur.
There’s a yin yang duality found on both “Mama Werewolf” and “Sinners, Saints And Fools.” The former is a bit of a ridge runner. Sun-dappled guitars are anchored to sinewy bass lines, winsome keys and a cantilevered beat. The lyrics speak to generational dysfunction and offer this wry mea culpa; “When I awaken and I’m reborn, my body aches and my soul is torn, I search the void for any clues and I feel ashamed for what I put you through/The curse again from my father’s kin, they fought the beast I feel within, but we don’t talk about it and we don’t call it’s name, we just carry on hoping it will change, but we know it’ll never change.”
The latter evokes a grandeur and heaviosity that fuses Metallurgic thunder with back porch Country comfort (hinting at a Rock Opera in her future). Slashing guitars crash over tsunami of strings, tangled with prickly bass lines and an urgent backbeat. A narrative rich in Biblical allusions offer a blistering diatribe on the Religious Right and their sanctimonious stance on immigration. It tells the story of a righteous, holy fool; “To the weary, desperate souls who washed up on the sand, he said we haven’t seen your paperwork, and he withdrew his hand, you know he never felt safer, or the peace he hoped to find, and up until the day he died he never changed his mind/ You can’t break the law there are reasons for the rules, we gotta keep things safe here for the sinners, saints and fools, to the poor and huddled masses, who are hungry and afraid, you gotta do it by the book, and they’ll be no exceptions made.” As the instrumental break slips into interstellar overdrive, Brandi’s melismatic croon breaks through the sonic sludge with a final yowl of indignation
Following this penultimate track, the record powers down with the quiescent piano ballad, “Throwing Good After Bad.” Stripped-down and bare-bones, it’s basically piano, bass and synth. Suitably Joni-esque, the song feels confessional and confrontational, layering themes of grief acceptance, rejection and redemption. The first song she wrote after finishing her memoir, it summons old ghosts allowing “you got a beautiful mind and a soul of a Coyote.” Intensely intimate, Brandi’s vocals feel thisclose. She resists any temptation to over-sing, she confidently caresses each note, deftly making her point. Dave and Shooter have produced a lean and unfussy album that relies on the singular talents of the twins, Phil and Tim adding guitars, bass, harmonies and percussion. Along with drummer Chris Powell, the band Lucius added backing vocals and Josh Neuman providing strings.
Stylistically, In These Silent Days is all over the map, and that’s a good thing. Brandi skips effortlessly from majestic, Adele-sized Power Ballads, to Folky lullabies, from Black Sabbath-y bombast to soul-searching laments. All the while, she remains true to herself.