Here is my review of the newest album from one of my favorite artists. My expectations are high because Brandi Carlile is super-talented, and because her last album, Bear Creek is one of my favorite (if not THE favorite) of all time. This time around I didn’t really take advantage of singles availability or track previews. I wanted a sense of the album as a whole. “That Wasn’t Me” is one of my favorite songs, but I didn’t think it really went with the vibe of it’s album, so my expectations were all weird going in. This time–I’m starting with a clean slate. I went song-by-song, writing a blurb about my very first listen, then adding on after an entire day on repeat–once I got a feel for things a little more. So here we go, first impressions followed by today’s feelings:
The first song, “Wherever is Your Heart” started out very folksy-Americana with Brandi’s solo vocals. It becomes a little more rock at the chorus. And halfway through, a sense of pleading and desperation when Brandi’s voice becomes somewhat gravely. After a day of listening to the album, I listened again. I was inspired to belt this one out right along with the band. It’s exciting and lyrically intricate. In the top three strongest songs of the album.
The Eye conjures an earlier time of Fleetwood Mac or Crosby, Nash, and Stills, what with the acoustic instrumentation and harmonized singing. I heared this song at the Gorge when they opened for DMB, so the generational throwback sound was no surprise to me. Cool brings up a good point–do hurricanes have an eye? I know for sure tornadoes do, but I’m unfamiliar with the structure of a hurricane. The structure of this song is beautiful as well. It was both haunting and exhilarating live, but I thought the song went on too long at the Gorge–because the words get repetitive. But the amazingness of a sparse song and the harmony isn’t fully captured on the record either. It’s best live, but a little shorter or with some different words (less chorus) to keep it interesting. Anyway, I’m not as enamored with this one as the rest of the world I guess–it’s not my favorite on the album, let alone catalogue, but it’s pleasant.
The Things I Regret. I could tell right away I was going to like this song. Brandi sings with a pining, and I could feel the mood they were trying to convey. And I like a “wooo wooo” segway, going into a strong drum beat to keep things climbing in intensity. The 2nd day, I was still impressed with the vibe and yearning on this song. I think the strongest thing about this is Tim and Phil coming in vocally on the lyrics. And I still think the stronger beat and staccato phrases are spot-on and make the song more emotive. Today, I thought the end is too sudden with the cut-off, “like a holy rolling stone.” Very abrupt.
I immediately liked the punk-ish rock vibe of “Mainstream Kid” with the strong vocals by Brandi channeling Janis Joplin and the electric guitar. This song transcends neat categorization of this album. Maybe the rest is rock/Americana, with some more familiar staples for the fans, but this song puts this record in it’s own place. The hand clap section may be starting to get a little trite, but that’s going to make for some awesome audience participation at a live show. On the 2nd day, I really liked the genre jump of “Mainstream Kid” (through abrupt) because it provided some harder rocking that I needed after all the soft, slow stuff. But I think the style in which Brandi sings the main stanzas is a little cheesy/phony, just because her voice is a higher register or something that sounds a little unnatural and forced. I think she strays from herself a little too much and that makes the sound a tiny bit superficial. Add in the claps, and this song goes downhill. Yet, this is one of the best songs on the album, because it ROCKS. What I love is the syncopated chorus and hard-core instrumentation. I also love the intensity, especially toward the end when Brandi stretches out the word “mainstream” into a growl and sounds like Carrie Underwood ready to kick some serious a$$. Brandi, just don’t sing this one live too much, because it sounds like you will hurt your vocal cords with this rougher style.
“Beginning to Feel the Years” takes the album back down to a softer level. Which may be a poor transition. The singing begins sweetly. This song is probably the closest to the band’s earlier efforts. Harmony accompaniment sneaking in every so often, and light guitar strumming. The 2nd day I liked the definite genre break with this song. It’s very sentimental and lovely and features just enough of the twins to make it similar to their older, popular songs. I’m glad they gave their long-term fans something recognizable. The end is also abrupt–they stop playing. I think they need to work on better conclusions.
“Wilder (We’re Chained)” seems like another story song. It starts out with just Brandi, but broadens to a harmonized word. It is also very Fleetwood Mac. I liked the instrumentals briefly played. The 2nd day I noticed Brandi is singing with a twang that I hadn’t previously heard. I also thought this song sounded like “The Eye” but not as strong. It is one of the weaker songs on the album. The thing that redeems it at all is the cello peppered in (but not frequently enough). I hope they do something more with this song in live performances, because it’s lack-luster here.
“Blood Muscle Skin & Bone” sounds a little like Amy Ray’s punk-inspired sound. Brandi’s voice and the claps make it a little superficial. I like the stronger drum beats further into the song and the twin’s “uh oh ohs” are pleasing yet simultaneously cheesy. The shouted chorus began to grow on me halfway through the song. 2nd day: I can see what the band was going for in this song–but they didn’t quite accomplish it. And that’s why I like this album as a whole, less then their previous efforts. I know what the overall feeling of this album is: A bobby-socked 1950’s band trying desperately to be hard-core. A lot of the songs have intensity and feeling, but they have an underlying cheesiness about them (the clap-clap and “uh oh oh ohhhs”) that is off-putting to me and accomplishes the opposite of their goal. I want to take the songs seriously, but they are a little soda fountain-poser for my taste.
“I Belong to You” has a nice melody, and I liked Brandi’s vocal stylings. I could tell instantly I would like this song. It’s a nice, romantic song. It has a country end refrain that breaks away from the style of the song and makes it more interesting. 2nd day I found this one to be lyrically complex and I really appreciate that. This one is a good love song and made me think and feel sentimental. I think it’s successful even though it deviates from the sense of the album, because it speaks to the band’s former material. They are good at vocally-strong, stirring songs that don’t have the trappings (and cliche) of studio magic. It’s all about the writing and Brandi’s voice, throw in some harmony to close it out. I think this album would have been more successful if they had stayed truer to what they do best.
“Alibi” is cheeky right off. I like the shouted-harmonized chorus and strong beat. This is a standout on the album. The instrument break with drum stick sounds was exciting too. 2nd day, this one is my favorite (maybe 2nd favorite) of the album. It’s rocking, still features Brandi’s voice loud and clear, but sticks to the tone of the rest of the album. The harder sound is a relief from the other songs and makes me cue in to the music. I like everything but the “ahh ahhs” and “woo oohs” parts that goes back to that sock-hop feel again. The twins are amazing at adding vocal stylings–I’m not sure why they’re only added in cheeseball “oh ohhs” on this album.
“The Stranger At My Door” says the album’s title right away. Which makes me happy, because I was going to look up what a firewatcher was, exactly. This song sounds like a Johnny Cash (talking rather than singing) song. It’s more folksy rockabilly story, then belting out a range of notes. Brandi’s “woo woo’s” are both haunting and old-country. The piano with marching and electric guitar “We All Go Marching” segway was a spectacular end that was both unexpected and made sense. Best song ending yet! 2nd day: I think this was in the top three strongest songs on the record (it’s quickly becoming my favorite), just because it has a cowboy poetry vibe, and some clip-clop fancy sounds, but the twins “woo oohhs” actually sound right in this context. I feel like she’s telling a story during a desert horseback ride in the tradition of the old west. The deviation into the march and the ending in a familiar tune was maybe the best song ending of all time, most definitely in Brandi Carlile’s catalogue.
“Heros and Songs” begins quietly. It features a slight background and Brandi’s lyrics. I kept hoping it would get a little more jazzed up, and waiting for something else. It’s maybe the most boring song on the album-perhaps it will grow on me. Sometimes the first listen isn’t indicative of what I’ll like long-term. 2nd day listen: Brandi is a good singer, and I like that. The lyrics are meaningful and varied, I like that. Not much else is going on here though. I feel like they were finished with the album, and their label was like–we need one more song to fill it out. So the band hurried and wrote something on a napkin then hastily recorded it. It’s sort of a throw away, and will be forgotten quickly.
“Murder in the City” is an Avett Brothers cover. And this is one of my favorites from them. Brandi and the twins do a good job of it. Brandi does the talk-singing well, and the twins are always exceptional with contributing harmonies. The instrumentation is a little richer in this version, which I like, with the cello lending a deep, rich sound to this track. My least favorite part of the song was the last 3 strums. It was a lackluster finish that made me want to find the original song to see how it ended. It also wasn’t a very strong song to finish the album on. on the 2nd day listen I still thought this was an impeccable cover and good choice for the album. The band did an awesome job conveying the same sound and emotion that the Avett Brothers had. The only troubling thing is another abrupt ending, and possibly the placement on the track order. I would have closed with “The Stranger at my Door,” because 1) it mentions the album title, tying the concept together and 2) that stand-out ending would be a big, big close for an album.
While I’m on that point (of rearranging songs) I would have reordered this entire album. “The Eye” was not in a place that capitalized on it’s wonderfulness. There were times when the relief of a strong song would have improved things, and alternately, times when the quiet song was such a big drop in momentum it made me lose the mood. In another post I’ll tell you the order I would do.
After the first listen I was disappointed. Let me clarify, Bear Creek was so outstanding and became an instant favorite that really anything that followed would be a let-down. But I think The Firewatcher’s Daughter is a solid 3rd place behind Beak Creek and The Story in the Brandi Carlile catalogue. There are two types of albums: The ones that are immediately awesome and the growers. This one is the latter, featuring some songs with potential that I will listen to more.
I feel like the band tried to deviate from their normal genre in this album. And that’s fine, but I feel a commitment to one type of sound would have been better. As it is, The Firewatcher’s Daughter is not a cohesive work, but a collection of random songs. Kudos for stepping outside of the box and trying something new, but the result feels a little contrived and scattered missing the mark. Stick to what you’re the best at: Lyrically-driven, songs featuring Brandi’s amazing voice and Phil and Tim’s harmonic additions. And if you want to try something new–cool–but stick to that thing throughout.
At any rate, still love Brandi Carlile, still would kill to attend a concert–or even better several festivals, and I plan to listen til I love it.