Brandy Clark was born in Morton, Washington, a small logging town. She grew up enamoured with country music, naming the Patsy Cline movie Sweet Dreams as a particularly vivid influence. She took time out from music in her teens, attending Central Washington University on a basketball scholarship.
Accordingly, Clark was a late bloomer in the music industry. She was in her mid-thirties when, in 2010, she wrote two songs that featured on a Reba McEntire album. In 2011, along with Shane McAnally and Kacey Musgraves, she wrote the hit ‘Mama’s Broken Heart’ for Miranda Lambert. Her success as a writer allowed her to pivot to a recording career, releasing her debut record in 2013.
Clark’s an intelligent writer whose stories often discuss the lives of small-town Americans, like the place she grew up. She’s continued to enjoy success as a songwriter, writing for Sheryl Crow and Kenny Rogers, but she’s also a capable performer with a pleasant voice and a distinctive lyrical touch.
Brandy Clark Album Reviews
Clark planned to become a recording artist when she moved to Nashville in 1997, but it was her success as a songwriter that afforded her a recording career. 12 Stories mostly features songs that other artists hadn’t chosen to record. The songs were often passed over because they were provocative, like ‘Take A Little Pill’ or ‘Pray To Jesus’. The subversive lyrics are contrasted with straightforward country arrangements, including Vince Gill on backing vocals.
The best-known song is ‘Stripes’, where Clark resists shooting her partner because she won’t look good in the prison uniform, declaring “there’s no crime of passion worth a crime of fashion”. Clark’s generally best in gentle storytelling mode, and ‘What’ll Keep Me Out of Heaven’ is exquisitely simple, a narrator aware of the consequences of an affair but going ahead anyway. Clark also shines at storytelling on ‘The Day She Got Divorced’, full of mundanity. Clark’s such a good storyteller that I’m less excited about uptempo songs like ‘Get High’, accomplished compositions that are most notable for their dark humour.
12 Stories showcases an excellent songwriter, although she’d benefit from more diverse instrumentation on her subsequent records.
Big Day In A Small Town
Clark recruited producer Jay Joyce for her second album. They furnish Big Day In A Small Town with a mainstream country sound, most noticeable on the stadium-rock guitar attack of the single ‘Girl Next Door’. The first couple of songs make a bid for mainstream success, but afterwards Big Day In A Small Town settles into normal Brandy Clark fare. Many of the songs are about small-town life, and Clark reached back to songs written before 12 Stories to flesh out the concept.
‘Girl Next Door’ is much closer to country mainstream than Clark usually treads, but it’s still great – Clark’s such a good lyricist that she’s filled with personality anyway, spitting out lines like “Not some Debbie debutante standing in an apron/Frying up your bacon”. Clark’s hilarious on the title track, where she excitedly declares “somebody shot a deer”, while ‘You Can Come Over’ plays like a sequel to the first record’s ‘What’ll Keep Me Out of Heaven’. Big Day In A Small Town closes poignantly with ‘Since You’ve Gone To Heaven’, a tribute to Clark’s father who died in a work accident shortly before 9/11.
Big Day In A Small Town is Clark’s most mainstream album, but it doesn’t dampen her reliable songwriting.
Your Life Is A Record
Jay Joyce is back in the producer’s chair for Your Life is a Record, but Clark challenged him to only use acoustic textures on Your Life Is a Record. While they didn’t strictly adhere to this rule, the predominance of acoustic instruments and slightly psychedelic facade recalls Musgraves’ 2018 masterpiece Golden Hour. While Golden Hour was a warm celebration of a new marriage, Your Life is a Record is written at the end of a fifteen-year relationship, dissected in ‘Who Broke Whose Heart?’ and ‘Can We Be Strangers’.
Despite the sincerity of the breakup songs, Clark is a born storyteller and the best songs use this skill. ‘Pawn Shop’ tells the story of a pawned guitar and wedding ring adeptly, while Clark’s story of a ramshackle old car on ‘Bad Car’ is also beautifully written.
I know it’s a bad car, I know it’s a piece of junkBad Car
I know the best tyre on it, is in the trunk
Clark’s such a good storyteller that it overshadows her other songs, even though the diversity in approach is welcome. Randy Newman adds his croaky vocals to ‘Bigger Boat’ – I like the sentiment of inclusiveness (“The rich get richer, the rest get a little more broke/We’re gonna need a bigger boat”), but Clark’s better at small-scale portraits. She’s also best when she’s writing sensitively – the dismissal of ‘Long Walk’ isn’t as enjoyable as the warmth of ‘I’ll Be The Sad Song’. Clark slips into torch song territory on ‘Love Is A Fire’ and ‘Can We Be Strangers’, but the creative arrangements keep Your Life Is A Record feeling fresh.
Your Life Is A Record has sent me back to explore Clark’s previous records, always a good sign. It feels uneven, but mostly because the best songs are so good.
Brandy Clark delivers a self-titled record on the fourth time around – although it makes sense, as it’s her most autobiographical, revisiting her past in the Northwest. Clark’s career has straddled the divide between mainstream country and the more organic sounds of Americana. This fourth album leans harder into Americana, fitting in with the nostalgic sound. Tracks like ‘Northwest’, a success with its tougher guitar sound, and ‘She Smoked in the House’ hark back to her childhood. Derek Trucks, known for his work with the Allman Brothers Band and the Tedeschi Trucks Band, adds some guitar muscle to the opening ‘Ain’t Enough Rocks’.
…one thing that really intrigued me was [Brandi Carlile] saying ‘I see it as your return to the Northwest.’ That comment inspired so much for me. It took me back to where and how I grew up. ‘Northwest’ and ‘She Smoked In The House’ were both a result of that early conversation.”
If there’s nostalgia in places, there’s also confessional biography – Carlile duets with Clark on ‘Dear Insecurity’, where they sing “That my lips are way too thin/Too many miles on my skin”. There’s something lost with the more sincere and direct approach Clark takes here. Starting as a professional songwriter, her cutting wit was always a strength, and always writing sincerely takes away one of her main strengths.
It’s interesting hearing Clark writing from biography, but it’s not always the strength you might expect.
Ten Best Brandy Clark Songs
Can We Be Strangers
Girl Next Door
What’ll Keep Me Out of Heaven
You Can Come Over
The Day She Got Divorced
Who Broke Whose Heart
Big Day in a Small Town
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