Album Review – Brandy Clark’s ‘Big Day In A Small Town’

I think there’s a certain fear that comes into play when our favorite independent artist reaches a certain level of prominence. Don’t get me wrong, there’s of course the happiness for said artist that should come from any true fan, however there’s also cause for concern. What if they chase fame rather than art? It’s an inner fear that haunts many country fans.

The praise that Brandy Clark received for her 2013 album, 12 Stories couldn’t have been more well deserved. It was only her debut album and yet the songwriting was already on an elite level, causing her to end up as a critical darling in my peoples’ eyes. This acclaim turned into signing with Warner Bros which then led to nominations for 12 Stories from the CMA’s and Grammy Awards. It’s safe to say that Brandy’s Clark world was changing rapidly as soon as she had released that album.

And that’s where the fear part come in. With Brandy Clark being on a major record label, would she choose to hone her talents and continue to make her art or give the label what they wanted and be a star? News of her working with Jay Joyce seemed to raise eyebrows due to Joyce’s polarizing discography as a producer and the lead single “Girl Next Door” didn’t live up to the expectations that many had hoped it would. With all that said, is there a cause for concern?

No, absolutely not. Yes, it’s true that Big Day In A Small Town is definitely a more contemporary album than 12 Stories but that doesn’t mean it’s an “inferior” album nor does it mean that Brandy lost any of the spark that made 12 Stories the excellent album that it was. If anything, Big Day In A Small Town is another excellent album from Brandy. The production, while more modern that may have been expected at first works extremely well in helping to deliver these well-crafted tunes. In addition, all of the great songwriting that surfaced on 12 Stories not only is present here, but it’s arguably even better than before. Now, I really do hate comparing two different albums in a review like this but it’s an important comparison to make. Big Day In A Small Town isn’t the same album that 12 Stories was, but it’s definitely a damn good listen.

I’ve already stated that the biggest change made on Big Day In A Small Town is the sound. Jay Joyce has always been known to deliver more bombastic, diverse offerings (The Outsiders, Painkiller), but he also knows how to tone it down, in addition to finding a sound that fits the artist naturally (like Mr. Misunderstood by Eric Church). That’s what we get on this album. One easy criticism of 12 Stories was that the sound, while great and rooted in a traditional country sound often felt lacking due to the sameness of some of the tracks. If I’m being honest, aside from maybe one or two tracks the production here is a big improvement. The changes are pretty noticeable right from the start on tracks like “Girl Next Door” and “Broke”. The former opts for a spacier, rock-like sound, which admittedly gets a little cluttered in spots. On an album full of gems this is the weak link. The latter track, “Broke” also opts for a more rock-esque, bass heavy sound that works a lot better. Aside from that, while the tracks on this album are more contemporary, they’re all grounded in that same traditional country vein that was found on Brandy’s early material. And there’s really not a spot where it doesn’t work. “Homecoming Queen” and “Love Can Go To Hell” are examples of what modern mainstream country could and should sound like, especially the latter with its excellent banjo that supports it all throughout. Other tracks like the softer, “Since You’ve Gone To Heaven” and “Three Kids No Husband” are great examples of how Brandy has always been able to own a ballad.

Of course, there’s the one element that hasn’t changed on this album and has actually only gotten better – the songwriting. It’s Brandy’s greatest talent and is something that can’t be emphasized enough. Tracks such as “Broke”, the title track, and “Daughter” are examples of you don’t have to sacrifice great lyrics in order to make a song “fun”. Then you have ballads such as “Since You’ve Gone To Heaven” and “Three Kids No Husband” which are two of Brandy’s finest songs yet. The former illustrates the impact that a loved one’s death has had on family and friends (“Since you’ve gone to heaven, the whole world’s gone to hell”), while the latter highlights the struggles that a single mother has to face while raising kids. As someone who was raised by a single mother himself I can totally relate to this song. “Love Can Go To Hell” talks about the highs and lows love can go through on its journey until it reaches the end where it eventually goes to hell. The title track tells of all the crazy things that can happen in a small town (no I’m not talking about another frigging party in a cornfield) as well as the people who comprise these “weirdos” (such as the lady who goes to Walmart in the middle of the night in her nightgown). It’s a song that emphasizes the struggles that come with everyday life, not just in a small town but in everyone’s lives. Between the message of individualism in “Soap Opera”, the former beauty queen in “Homecoming Queen”, the people who will just about anything for money in “Broke”, and the chaos that erupts with death in “Since You’ve Gone To Heaven”, this is an album that really centers in on the imperfections of human life.

In short, I didn’t really know what to expect with Brandy Clark’s new album. After listening through however I can see that I had nothing to worry about. It’s understandable why some hardcore fans of 12 Stories may be a little put-off by this record, but for me, I think the overall changes made to Brandy’s sound work well, and I’m especially happy to have her as one of country music’s best female artists out there right now.

(9/10)

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