Album Review — Brandy Clark’s ‘Your Life is a Record’

Brandy Clark’s last album Big Day in a Small Town initially really impressed me, but eventually I found it to be a slightly above average album. And one of the big reasons was the production was all over the place. It just lacked cohesion and I also felt Clark didn’t do enough lyrically to elevate the tired small town themes of country music. So coming into this new record I was a bit unsure of what to expect, although with Jay Joyce returning as producer I continued to expect different sonic choices. And that definitely is the case with this album. But Your Life is a Record is also a much rawer and more personal record from Brandy Clark, which I would argue is definitely beneficial to this album.

Opening track “I’ll Be the Sad Song” lets you feel right away the pure somberness that fuels much of this record (Clark broke up with her partner of several years, inspiring many tracks on this album). And a big part of what helps drive this feeling is the sweeping and gorgeous strings throughout the chorus. It fits the reflective nature of looking back on a lost relationship really well. There’s no bitterness or anger, just a sad realization of what will never be again. “Long Walk” is on the other end of the spectrum, a fun sing-a-long that wishes bad things upon a person you don’t like. The kicker lines of course are “So take a long walk off a real short pier/Take a cinder block with you as a souvenir.” Out of the context of the song this is overly dark and vengeful. But the playful melody and Clark’s tongue-in-cheek delivery make for a whimsical, silly response to a person who’s clearly agitating.

“Love is a Fire” is a smoldering love song that shows off Clark’s passionate side and to excellent effect. I really enjoy the spacey, drifting feeling created by the strings and piano. The lyrics do a great job of painting that imagery of love being this blazing, out of control fire in the listener’s head too. “Pawn Shop” shows how vivid of a storyteller Clark can be, as she tells the duel stories of a woman pawning off her wedding ring and a man pawning his guitar. Each reflect on the loss these items represent and the ending of dreams. But then Clark reminds you that somebody else will buy them, starting dreams anew for somebody else. It’s a really clever look at the duality of life and death, how each are constantly playing off each other and how each gives the other value.

“Who You Thought I Was” is about striving to be a better person after falling in love with someone. The bouncy juxtaposition of the horns, mandolin and flute gives the song an enjoyably fun melody. As for the lyrics, they’re solid, clearly getting across the change in heart of the person who’s fallen in love. “Apologies” has an enjoyable flute and horn section, but the song meanders too long for me. It just feels like this song never leaves second gear and doesn’t ever reach anywhere with it’s message. The lyrics just sort of glaze over you after a couple of listens.  Randy Newman joins Clark on “Bigger Boat” and I just have to be flat-out honest: I do not like Newman’s voice. It annoys the shit out of me. The song has an admirable aim of pointing out the absurdity of the disagreements that run through social media and society nowadays. But it’s just too hokey for my taste. That’s a shame because I do enjoy the production on this track.

I have the same issues with “Bad Car” as I did with “Apologies.” And the other thing that bugs me is I feel like I’ve heard this song done so many times in country music. There’s just nothing that stands out to make it different from every other song that personalizes and gives emotional meaning to a vehicle. It’s not a bad song per se, it’s just fine and I won’t remember it. “Who Broke Whose Heart” fortunately does not have this problem. In fact this is probably one of my favorite songs I’ve heard from Clark, as it’s instantly catchy lyrics and melody hooked me. The production actually reminds me of Electric Light Orchestra in the way it utilizes the strings, horns and guitar. It’s just a really fun song with a surprising amount of bite.

“Can We Be Strangers” is a devastatingly great heartbreak song. This relationship has soured to the point of where the narrator just wishes they had never even met each other in the first place. And the way Clark delivers the chorus is painstakingly and soulfully beautiful. The horns and strings perfectly complement this song too, not taking over and instead adding dramatic gravitas that only enhances the emotions. “The Past is the Past” wraps the album up in a nice bow, with Clark reaching the point of letting the past go and moving forward in her life while still letting herself feel the heartbreak from the situation. As I said it’s a fitting and mature conclusion after the myriad of emotions Clark expresses throughout the album. Lessons have been learned and now a new life begins.

Despite a few hiccups, Brandy Clark takes a big step up from her last album with Your Life is a Record. I think the production is the biggest improvement, as it flows together really well from start to finish. I really enjoy the incorporation of the flutes in this album, as it’s something not really utilized as much in country music. The songwriting stumbles in a few spots, but for the most part is pretty good and at times great. There’s a surprisingly nice mix of emotions on an album centered around a breakup too. Most importantly, Clark rewards you for listening to the whole album, giving you the emotional journey with the fittingly positive, yet realistic destination.

Grade: 8/10

Album Review – Sunny Ozell’s ‘Take It With Me’

Sunny Ozell Take It With Me

What is Americana? This is question I see posed fairly often and it can be a tough one to answer. Americana after all isn’t a concrete sound like (actual) country, rock or hip-hop. Americana is a melting pot of different genres that come together to create a true vision of artistry and music. But really I think the best answer to this question is this: you will know Americana when you hear it. And I can certainly hear it with Sunny Ozell. Not a big surprise when she says two of her biggest influences are Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings, two Americana stalwarts. Ozell lived and breathed music from an early age, receiving classical voice training, studying the Suzuki method of classical violin and having music loving parents who listened to the likes of The Rolling Stones, Fleetwood Mac and Janis Joplin. Ozell has been involved with various music projects in various genres throughout her life, playing a lot of jazz. But on her new album she wanted to explore everything, hence why it’s strictly covers of some of her favorites. It’s to lay the foundation for her next album.

“I’ve always written songs…and bits of songs,” Ozell says. “This first project represents me pulling together a band. It’s a very collaborative effort, and we really found our footing as a unit. It gave me a platform for my voice. I’m putting together the scraps and the ideas for the next album. The ideas I’m writing come in snapshots. I’ll have a phrase or rhyme scheme and build around that.”

Ozell really truly loves and has a passion for music, as her whole life revolves around it. Of course a lot of people know her as the wife of actor Sir Patrick Stewart. But as she embarks on her music career she’s trying to be known for her music too. If her debut album Take It With Me is a good indicator of what’s to come, then she’s well on her way to being known as an Americana artist too.

The breezy and easy-going Leon Russell song “Manhattan Serenade” opens up the album. The song is very much in the bluesy, jazz sonic range and allows Ozell to really show off her more bubbly side. One of my favorite tracks on the album is “Family Tree.” The Julian Velard song really suits Ozell’s voice well and allows her to flex her vocal range. The inclusion of the xylophone in the bridge really adds an appropriate reflective tone to the song. This is definitely one of the songs you must hear off the album. Next is “Move Along Train,” one of the iconic songs of well-known American Soul and R&B artist Pops Staples. I can see why Ozell would choose the song, but it doesn’t really seem to suit her style as well as other songs on the album. This song is more suited for an artist with a lower register. Ozell’s performance isn’t bad, but not one of the better ones on the album.

The softer “Louisiana 1927” is more in Ozell’s range. While I’m not that fond of singer-songwriter Randy Newman, I find this is one of his best songs and I’m glad Ozell chose it. For those not familiar, “Louisiana 1927” is about the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 that left hundreds of thousands of people homeless. I really applaud Ozell for taking a country approach to the song, as the steel guitar throughout really goes with the lyrics perfectly. Up next is one of two original songs on the album, the Aaron Lee Tasjan-written “Git Gone.” Ozell tackles the song written by the folk rock artist with absolute gusto. It’s an upbeat, fun song that has a carefree nature that will easily hook you in. The dreamy “Kill Zone” follows. T Bone Burnett and Roy Orbison wrote this song together, weeks before Orbison died, and is believed to be the last song he wrote. Again Ozell takes a more country approach, as you can hear plenty of steel guitar throughout combined with the piano. This is one of Ozell’s best vocal performances on the album.

“Number One” is another Tasjan-written song. The song is about struggling to live with a spouse who spends more time doing stuff like smoking than loving their significant other. It’s a heartbreak ballad that slowly unwinds itself and the more I’ve listened to it, the more I’ve enjoyed it. It’s one of those songs that take time to grow, but once it does you can really connect with it. Ozell goes in a more pop direction on “Only in the Movies.” It’s a David Mead song, a pop artist based out of Nashville. The song is about how relationships in real life don’t make sense and end how they should, only in the movies. It’s a pretty straightforward song. The same can pretty much be said for “No One is to Blame,” a song by English soft rock artist Howard Jones. The song is about being attracted or in love with someone, yet you can’t do anything about it. Your attitude towards this song will probably be dictated by your feelings towards new wave music of the 80s, which most people either love or hate.

Ozell tackles the Hank Williams song “I Can’t Help It If I’m Still In Love With You” next. British folk/alt-country artist Teddy Thompson joins her on the song. Thompson is the son of Americana artist Richard Thompson. As someone who has never heard a Hank Williams song he didn’t like, I of course enjoyed Ozell’s version. Once again this country/folk sound really suits her well and I think I would like to hear more from her in this vein. Take It With Me closes out with the Tom Waits song and album’s title track. “Take It With Me” is a soft, somber love ballad that really can tug at your heartstrings. It’s a Waits song, so of course it cuts deep. It’s a beautiful song that suits a beautiful voice like Ozell’s.

Take It With Me is the kind of album any music fan can pick up and enjoy. Ozell really does a great job picking some of the masters of each genre to cover on the album and proves to be up to the task in doing the songs justice. It should be noted too that the album has two bonus track worth checking out, Ray Charles’ “Come Back Baby” and Hanks’ “I Saw The Light.” You might not like every song on this album, but when an album jumps around to a lot of genres this tends to be the case. There’s something for everyone on this album, but really I thought Ozell shined best on the folk/country-driven tracks. I hope on her next album with original material that she goes in this direction, as her voice has that smooth, yet earthy tone that goes well with steel guitar. Sunny Ozell may be well versed in classical and jazz music, but she fits like a glove with Americana.

Grade: 8/10