Brandi Carlile's Surging Voice Grounds 'The Firewatcher's Daughter'

Mar 16, 2015
Originally published on March 16, 2015 1:40 pm

Brandi Carlile is a singer-songwriter who has cited influences as various as Elton John, Patsy Cline, and Queen's Freddie Mercury. Carlile has been releasing albums for the past 10 years, and Fresh Air rock critic Ken Tucker says her new one, called The Firewatcher's Daughter, is her best yet.

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Brandi Carlile is a singer-songwriter who has cited influences as various as Elton John, Patsy Cline and Queen's Freddie Mercury. Her songs have been played prominently on TV shows such as "Grey's Anatomy" and "Private Practice." Carlile has been releasing albums for the past 10 years, but rock critic Ken Tucker says her new one, called "The Firewatcher's Daughter," is her best yet.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEREVER IS YOUR HEART")

BRANDI CARLILE: (Singing) I think it's time we found a way back home. You lose so many things you love as you grow. I miss the days when I was just a kid. My fear became my shadow, I swear it did. Wherever is your heart I call home. Wherever is your heart I call home. Though your feet may take you far from me, I know wherever is your heart I call home.

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: Brandi Carlile has such a powerful voice, strong and surging and urgent with controlled emotion, that much of her previous work has showcased her vocals against a subdued background. In other words, it was easy to think of her in a folk or pop context rather than in terms of rock or country. But it's clear that one of Carlile's goals on "The Firewatcher's Daughter" has been to expand not just into other genres, but into new degrees of intensity. She does this with great wit on the song "Mainstream Kid," whose lyrics talk about the roles of the artist while the music has to leap to keep pace with her very enjoyable yelling.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAINSTREAM KID")

CARLILE: (Singing) I'm going to fit in. I'm on the list. I'm going to get in. Haven't you heard, and don't you know who I am? I'm with the Joneses. I'm their best friend. I've come to saturate the market, to perpetuate the hip kid. I was born so I could fall in a line. I am a legend in my own mind. Can I blend in with your kind? I need you to liberate me. You, the masses, educate me. Hold my fist into the air, declare a social victory. You can own me. You control me. Individuality has never stood a chance against you. Jump into the mainstream.

TUCKER: Throughout this album, Carlile works closely with Tim and Phil Hanseroth, known as the Twins. They play guitar and contribute to the songwriting on the album, but it's their three-part harmonies with Carlile that make a big impact. This is especially true of a stripped-down song such as "The Eye."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE EYE")

CARLILE AND THE TWINS: (Singing) It really breaks my heart to see a dear old friend go down to the worn-out place again. Do you know the sound of a closing door? Have you heard that sound somewhere before? Do you wonder if she knows you anymore? I wrapped your love around me like a chain, but I never was afraid that it would die. You can dance in a hurricane, but only if you're standing in the eye.

TUCKER: That song gives you some idea of what it was like to hear Carlile and the Twins during a recent spate of concerts they gave called the Pin Drop Tour. It featured the trio singing and playing without microphones or amplifiers. Other songs here display another aspect of Carlile's music, her connection to older styles of rock 'n' roll. You can hear this in the rocking blues of alibi.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALIBI")

CARLILE: (Singing) I done some bad, bad things. The kind you don't bring up at confession. Somewhere in my life, oh, I took the wrong direction. I swear on my soul I didn't want to hurt no one, but I got no way to justify the things I've done. If you're good at telling lies, you could be my alibi, and I won't have to atone for my sins. If you're good at telling lies, you could be my alibi, and I won't take the fall for where I've been. You done some bad, bad things.

TUCKER: A number of songs on "The Firewatcher's Daughter" are wistful, sometimes melancholy elegies to times past, to relationships lost and others carefully nurtured. Family love is as important as romantic love. Ultimately, however, the album is about the sound of Brandi Carlile's voice - the way its strength can convey the vulnerabilities detailed by the lyrics and how that neat paradox results in an esthetic tension that sounds like freedom.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic-at-large for Yahoo TV. He reviewed Brandi Carlile's new album, called "The Firewatcher's Daughter." Tomorrow on our show, I'll talk with Daniel Torday about his new novel. It's inspired in part by fabricated memoirs, false identities and the story of his Jewish relatives in Hungary during World War II. It's called "The Last Flight Of Poxl West." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.