By: Phillip Jones
The cover of Brandi Carlile’s latest record, The Firewatcher’s Daughter, is incredibly misleading. Its a beautifully simplistic cover with Carlile peering out from beneath her floppy hat, bathed in a warm amber glow. Stunning…but inaccurate. The casual observer will see The Firewatcher’s Daughter as the latest record from the woman who brought us 2007’s powerful The Story, perhaps most sonically comparable to Mary Chapin-Carpenter. The observer sees a singer-songwriter on the cover of her latest album. But Brandi Carlile is not simply a singer songwriter, and contrary to the new album’s cover, not a solo effort. Brandi Carlile is a band, a full and breathtaking ensemble, that should be treated as such.
Of course, like most ensembles, there is a clear leader; and Carlile herself leads with grace and gusto. But some of the most impressive moments in The Firewatcher’s Daughter come from the twins Phil and Tim Hanseroth, members of Brandi Carlile the band as much as its namesake. For the most part Phil plays bass and Tim plays electric guitar, but together they supply harmony vocals that are the very soul of The Firewatcher’s Daughter. They have been present on every Carlile record since her 2005 self titled debut, and their writing contributions have long been a keystone of the Carlile sound, but their vocal capabilities have been under utilised til now. At last, on The Firewatcher’s Daughter the Hanseroth twins are at the peak of their harmonic talents, fitting seamlessly into Carlile’s every wail and whisper. When Carlile stands alone on the record, she stands tall and formidable, but with the twins at her side, the band is truly a force to reckon with.
Carlile hits the ground not just running, but charging, with “Wherever Is Your Heart”. Easily the album’s most anthemic track, it had already generated a huge amount of radio buzz as a single before the full release, and made a clear statement about just what kind of record Daughter was going to be. The very first thing we hear is Carlile’s voice, a cappella. It is just a split second before an acoustic guitar chugs in underneath, but the statement is clear: listen to me. That opening syllable in no way prepares us for the vocal marvels to come, but it makes the human voice the strongest musical element from the get go. It isn’t long before the Hanseroth’s join in;the first chorus is nothing short of explosive and nothing else on the record matches the raw emotion of Carlile’s desperate plea in the bridge, “Oh, God forgive my mind”. The song closes on a cappella as well, but now in three part harmony. The stage is set for “The Eye”an equally strong track, with a trio of voices throughout. This song is perhaps the best thing that came from Carlile’s departure from the Columbia label last year. Three part harmonies can often wind up cheesy disasters, and on a major label it was deemed to much of a risk to attempt. Now, on Dave Matthews’ ATO records, Carlile and the Hanseroth’s took the risk in their stride. They knew what they were doing. The three voices ring as one in beautiful bluegrass fashion, crooning some of the most introspective lyrics on the album, making “The Eye”a joy to listen to.
Amazingly, after such strong leading tracks, the album never loses momentum. Both Hanseroth’s and Carlile have writing credits throughout, and while each clearly has a distinctive style, the record also never loses cohesiveness. Standouts are Phil’s bouncing “Blood Muscle Skin and Bone”, Carlile’s witty folk tale “The Stranger At My Door”and the collectively penned rocker “Alibi”. The only track that feels weak might be the third, “The Things I Regret”, sounding rather ordinary after “The Eye”and “Wherever is Your Heart”set the bar so high. The only other track that falls just short of its mark“Mainstream Kid”. One of the album’s most lyrically compelling songs, it speaks to a loss of identity as revolutionaries are assimilated into ordinary life. Its an absolutely blistering song, with Carlile’s voice turning into a positive howl, and the most ferocious electric guitar work on the record. But it could have been even grittier; the one time where the finessed production becomes a handicap. The guitar solo barks, but its bite is more of a nibble.
Lyrically, the album is full of simple and heartfelt truths, and some delicious enigmas, as we have come to expect from Carlile. But thematically, it is an album that is always emotionally pure, aflame with conviction. The album’s closing exemplifies this, finishing out with “Heroes and Songs”the one song where Carlile is completely alone vocally, lamenting some unknown soul left along the road. It’s a gut wrenchingly tender moment. Without the Hanseroth’s behind her, Carlile’s voice sounds stark and pure, but heart wrenchingly alone. It fits the mood perfectly. The finale is a wonderful cover of the Avett Brother’s “Murder in the City”, giving what could be taken as the album’s thesis: “there is nothing worth sharing like the love that let us share our name”.
Overall, the album has all the qualities of a flame, at times scorching, but other times warming through the soul. So, about that cover being misleading. There is one thing dead on. The orange glow spilling onto Brandi Carlile’s upturned face, is present in every note of The Firewatcher’s Daughter. Brandi Carlile is an artist that continues to amaze, now an unabashed ensemble, and a darn good one.