Brandi Carlile's "Bear Creek"

Brandi Carlile's "Bear Creek"

Only one full listen-through is required to realize that Bear Creek -- the fourth studio album from folk-pop singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile -- signifies some sort of major change for the artist and her band. Since the 2005 debut of her self-titled first release from Columbia Records, there has been a gradual departure from her original pop-rock sound. Pursuing a folk direction, (most notably with The Story), has clearly been on Carlile’s agenda, but Bear Creek is her rootsiest album yet with its tinges of bluegrass, gospel, and blues. 

But Bear Creek is hardly just a roots album. Songs like “Save Part of Yourself” start out as standard Brandi Carlile ballads -- tender and simplified singing over acoustic guitar -- but end up taking a surprising turn into trendy, rhythmic pop territory. Syncopated hooks, use of reverb, and emphases on booming percussion achieve the sound of bands like Vampire Weekend and GIVERS when they execute their form of indie-Afro-beat. There is also a vibe that the band is having a lot of fun -- as if a group of friends got to travel to a gigantic cave, create some makeshift instruments, and attempt their rendition of STOMP.

The instruments have evolved as well. Electric guitars play a more noticeable role on songs like the album standout, “Raise Hell,” and “I’ll Still Be There,” although the latter is more like classic rock in its most unsavory form. Imagine combining The Story’s “Losing Heart” with “Dying Day” from Give Up The Ghost, and that is the realization of the new “electrified sound.” This new approach is still an improvement in some ways though, incorporating even more background vocals and harmonies, as well as an overall fullness and thickening of the sound. Phil and Tim Hanseroth’s vocals are still prominent, but soul and gospel singers have been added to the mix, resulting in even weightier and effected harmonies. 

Although new additions are present, the songs are satisfyingly simple. Unfortunately, it sounds like Carlile and company spent most of their time working on the choruses and hooks of these songs, (i.e. the heart-wrenching single, "That Wasn't Me"), and then just threw down verses that most certainly did not require the same amount of effort as they would’ve taken on previous albums. Perhaps new co-writers were introduced to create the new material; perhaps they just wanted to re-use melodies that have been used in previous songs by lesser-talented pop/folk artists. Regardless, Carlile and the Hanseroth twins don’t live up to their previously-proven songwriting potential, and that is disappointing. 

Overall, Bear Creek is an album that’s easy to listen to, ultimately enjoyable, and expertly executed. For those reasons, it should be intentionally sought after. For die-hard fans who have been with Carlile from the beginning of her career however, this album shouldn't be a favorite and will probably only be memorable for that reason. Her voice is there, the same powerful emotion is present, but the effort isn’t nearly as recognizable.

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