Carlile lets loose on `The Story'

September 27, 2007|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,Sun pop music critic

Brandi Carlile doesn't mind that Columbia, her record label, isn't making a big fuss over her. Her latest album, The Story, is her second for the mighty company, and it isn't the center of a splashy, expensive promotional campaign. No glitzy videos on MTV or high-profile appearances on TRL.

Besides, none of that would suit Carlile's profile, anyway.

Sure, she's 26 with camera-friendly looks. But her ponderous lyrics, roots-rock sound and hold-back-nothing vocal delivery don't exactly fit into pop's current climate of beat-driven vapidity. Carlile, who headlines the VH1 You Oughta Know tour Saturday at Rams Head Live, is an uncontrived throwback. So the approach to building her fan base has also been old-fashioned: The Seattle native tours almost nonstop, netting fans largely via word of mouth.

"That's the way it has to be. I like it that way, the chance to grow in this business," says Carlile, who last week was performing in Dallas. "But I don't know. Don't want to speak too soon, you know."

Since Columbia released her self-titled debut in 2005, Carlile has been garnering strong critical buzz from mainstream press. She has opened for fellow maverick artists such as Shawn Colvin and Ray LaMontagne. But her profile received a major boost in April when ABC's Grey's Anatomy featured the title track of her latest album on one of its hourlong episodes.

"I was excited about that," Carlile says. "I love the show. Even on the road, I catch it."

But all the while, the audience at her shows kept growing. Before she joined the VH1 tour, the artist had been filling up venues in the 500- to 1,000-seat range, even selling out places. College radio and triple-A stations have steadily picked up on The Story's frayed, open-ended songs. Produced by T-Bone Burnett, perhaps best-known for overseeing the Grammy-winning O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, the CD was recorded mostly live in the studio with Carlile's road band.

"I think it's a better representation of what we do live," she says. "I feel like it's truer. The first record was recorded live, but it wasn't as real as this one."

Where the debut was somewhat unformed, The Story streamlines Carlile's idiosyncrasies without compromising the integrity of her approach. The roiling arrangements are open and tightly focused on the artist's vocals, which ripple with elements of Patsy Cline and Roy Orbison. A singer-songwriter in his own right known for his rootsy, eclectic style, Burnett manages to give the production a modern feel.

"He comes in and he changes the way you feel about performing," Carlile says of the producer. "He had us playing different instruments. I was already doing what we did live on the record. I wanted to really let loose this time."

And she does, her voice soaring and cracking, giving each performance a raw urgency you rarely hear these days on pop records. The 15 songs on The Story, many of which were written almost a decade ago, are taut and lilting, including standouts "Late Morning Lullaby" and "Turpentine." Lyrical melancholy -- loneliness, lost love, dashed dreams -- bonds the songs.

"I'm sort of a glutton for punishment," says Carlile, who's based in Seattle. "It's my artistic road map. It's easier for me to write a song about my problems than talking about them."

The stage is also an extension of the therapy.

"It's where it all comes alive," she says. "It's always real. That's the best way to be."

rashod.ollison@baltsun.com

See Brandi Carlile at 7 p.m. Saturday at Rams Head Live, 20 Market Place. Tickets are $20.50. Call 410-244-1131 or go to ramsheadlive.com.

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