Brandi Carlile, The Story (Columbia, 2007)

Brandi Carlile's self-titled 2005 debut CD made a big impression with me, due to the combination of some memorably catchy melodies and Carlile's husky, powerful alto. The past two years have seen her gradually building up a following, due to her strong live performances and some exposure on TV shows like Grey's Anatomy. Her sophomore effort The Story expands on the folk rock of the first album, branching out towards both country and harder rock. As before, her two primary accompanists and collaborators are identical twins Phil (bass) and Tim (lead guitar) Hanseroth. Renowned producer T Bone Burnett was brought to oversee the sessions for this recording.

One thing that becomes immediately obvious upon listening to The Story is that the vocals were done straight, with little or no overdubbing. Burnett clearly intended to capture the rawness in Carlile's vocals. I feel that the approach works well, and is needed to fully showcase the energy which Carlile puts into her singing, but it was the subject of a rather heated debate when the title song was the iTunes free download of the week about a month ago. Most of the comments centered around a moment nearly three minutes into the song, when Carlile's voice cracks as she reaches for a high note. One of the negative responders suggested that Simon Cowell would have a field day with that one, which led to somebody else suggesting that the American Idol audience wouldn't know honest music if they heard it. Indeed, the honesty in Brandi Carlile's music is her greatest asset (if you go for that sort of thing, naturally). Carlile sings from the heart, and that more than anything else gives her voice its power. The lyrics are likewise pointed and direct. The musical arrangements seldom differ from a standard two guitars, bass and drums format, but they suit Carlile's voice and style well.

The Story is a pretty solid CD from top to bottom. Standout tracks include a couple of particularly good rockers in "My Song" and "Losing Heart," a nice upbeat acoustic number in "Have You Ever," and an ominous minor-key ballad in "Shadow On The Wall." I don't think the best songs on the new CD match "Closer To You" and "Throw It All Away," the two real gems from Carlile's first album, so on the whole I probably wouldn't rate it quite as high. Still, anybody who liked the first CD will like this one as well, and anybody interested in hearing some honest, emotional, straight-from-the-gut singing and writing from a fresh young face on the music scene will want to give Brandi Carlile a listen.

Overall grade: B+

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