If you’ve been paying attention to country music in 2013, there’s likely one name on the tip of your tongue: Brandy Clark. The buzz about the songwriter behind such hits as “Mama’s Broken Heart” and “Better Dig Two” has been at fever pitch, and it’s easy to understand why with just one listen to her debut record.
Clark has stolen the Linda Ronstadt rulebook that Trisha Yearwood and company made famous in the 1990s, rewritten it, and crafted an album that borrows from, yet improves on, the past, all while introducing an artist who is completely and uniquely herself. With 12 Stories Clark has re-drafted the textbook on how to evolve, and not change, the country genre.
At its core 12 Stories is an exercise in immaculate songwriting. Clark has an innate ability to take hefty subjects and morph them into delicious slices of black comedy, skewing the stories to forgo the ache in an effort to focus on creating little vignettes that play like some of the best episodes of television.
My favorite of these is “Hungover,” a Sara Evans-like co-write with Shane McAnally and Jessie Jo Dillon about a woman’s realization that her drunken man isn’t going to change. Also stunning is “The Day She Got Divorced,” a wonderfully addicting day-in-the-life about a woman’s itinerary the day her marriage officially ends. Reba had it on All The Women I Am and it was my favorite track on that project three years ago.
“Stripes”, the album’s lead single, is the new standard-bearer for cheating songs, with the woman declaring ‘there’s no crime of passion worth a crime of fashion” as she ponders killing her husband, stopping only because “I don’t look good in orange and I hate stripes”. Clark (along with McAnally and Matt Jenkins) has co-written one hell of a clever song, and while the premise is laid on a little thick it works surprisingly well.
“Crazy Women” was an excellent yet low-charting single for LeAnn Rimes (from Lady & Gentlemen), and Clark’s version is good, but lacks the punch of personality Rimes brought to her recording. In addition, “Get High,” the only song Clark wrote solo (and the oldest composition on the album) suffers from a weak hook (‘sometimes the only way to get by is to get high’) that leaves the chorus feeling underdeveloped.
What elevates 12 Stories into an echelon of masterworks is the emotional depth Clark brings to the project. She elegantly weaves a series of ballads between the vignettes that rank among the finest moments on a country album this decade.
Weeds-inspired “Pray To Jesus” is a timeless anthem for the working poor that doesn’t stereotype or judge. It acts an affirmation that we’re all just trying to better ourselves from within, because the fix doesn’t come from the outside world. It’s the lone socially conscious track on 12 Stories and currently the best song of its kind from this somewhat forgotten sub-genre.
“What’ll Keep Me Out of Heaven” is a reflection on the pull between right and wrong framed around two married individuals who are about to cheat on their spouses. Clark is able to get inside the woman’s psyche – “I don’t know what scares me most, the ride up, or the ride down” – in way that’s both ordinary and extraordinary; exercising both arguments while letting the listener make their own conclusions. The simple beauty recalls Matraca Berg’s “Lying To The Moon.”
Clark and “What’ll Keep Me Out of Heaven” co-writer Mark Stephen Jones teamed up again on “Hold My Hand,” the story of a couple running into his alluring ex-lover, only to have his current love plead for definition in their relationship. Meanwhile “In Some Corner” spins another side of the “Last Call”/”Keep It To Yourself” drunken dialing saga that amazingly hasn’t been played out yet. It’s Clark’s turn to show her moment of weakness and she’s praying he doesn’t call, as she can’t refuse his advances.
The strongest track on 12 Stories comes at the end, with an all too common narrative about a woman who marries the mirror image of her always-absent father. “Just Like Him” (co-written with Dillon and McAnally) beautifully hits upon the unspoken truth that people marry at the level of their self-esteem, thinking they’re only worth the same-gender role models (or lack thereof) they grew up around. The conviction Clark brings to this song is remarkable, showcasing her incredible knack at crafting tales purely from observation – her dad is the antithesis of this character.
In truth Clark brings that conviction to the entire project. As a child of the 90s, I came of age in the era when music such as this was the rule and not the exception, when artists were allowed to have real problems that were bigger than which truck was going to transport some beer keg to lake whatever down some dirt road littered with bikini-clad country girls.
It makes me sick that every record label in Nashville (even two that confessed to loving it) passed on releasing 12 Stories but I’m glad an independent label in Texas picked it up. This is music that needs to be heard. I urge you to pick up a copy, as it’s well worth the money, and time spent listening. Clark is the most important singer/songwriter to come around in a long, long time and 12 Stories is the best album of its kind I’ve heard in many, many years.