Look, we called Brandy Clark’s 12 Stories the best country music record of 2013, so of course we were lugging expectations with us Friday as we piled into one of those supper-club booths in the Highline Ballroom. 12 Stories lives up to its title so well that it could also rank on any list of its year’s best short-form lit-fic: It’s full of lives laid bare in just a line or two, stubbed-out folks in what’s left of real America fumbling toward escape via prayer, pot, pills, drunken hook ups, and — in its one triumphal moment — getting lots of shit done while a drunk spouse sleeps one off.
Here’s a record whose most heartening cut is called “Hungover,” but whose music is never beholden to dogmatic ideas about what country is supposed to sound like. With unassuming power, Clark and her band play through the songs rather than lay into ’em, and Dave Brainard’s production is modest and planed but never spare. Unlike most Nashville records today this one never sounds like it’s building to an Air Force flyover.
A year after its release, 12 Stories has proven to be easy listening in the best sense of the term: Putting it on the stereo can brighten and soften a room, and Clark’s stories, delivered in an unfussy alto, come to feel like dispatches from some funny old friend living someplace where people are crazy in a different way than what you see on the MTA. (And some of them, like the mom who gets baked and stares at the paint, would be right at home.)
Onstage Clark bested those expectations. Her singing was looser, a little less careful, conversational but once in a while a little heated. “[Miranda Lambert] sings this one balls to the wall,” Clark said, introducing “Two Rings Shy,” a song she co-wrote for Lambert’s superb new album. “I sing it marbles to the wall.” That’s a fair assessment, but Clark shoots those marbles like a shark, favoring dexterity rather than power. At the Highline, she made all the jokes in the verses hit, even in the show’s surprise highlight, a pair of killer new songs.
Yes, there are jokes: Clark knows that many of the best and saddest country songs have been always been funny as hell. Still, some of the funny stuff on 12 Stories veered into a bleakness country radio can’t embrace. Kick-off track “Pray to Jesus” equates Lotto playing with talking to God — both are attempts to win some boon from a universe that, increasingly, doles out few rewards in the direction of the small-town folks she’s singing about. The chorus is insistent, a bit comic, but the words so despairing that you can’t imagine it working as a sing-along. The High Line crowd mouthed with Clark, but this is a song that demands reflection rather than collective celebration.
That’s not the case with the new numbers, both highlights of the set. First up came one I’m guessing is called “We’re Broke,” a scrappy celebration of the destitute life that balances punchlines and pathos something like Harlan Howard’s “Busted,” made famous by Johnny Cash and Ray Charles. (Treat yourself to Charles’, even if you know it. Hot damn, that’s a record.) She rhymes “We’re broke” with “generic Coke” and complains there “ain’t enough apple for the apple pie,” a line you would feel good shouting along with. Unlike “Pray to Jesus,” this new one acknowledges hard times and then does everything it can to make you feel better about them.
Funnier still was “Big Day in a Small Town,” a celebration of local color that would be a sure-fire hit in the hands of a Nashville star. Like today’s Nashville chart toppers, it aims for the individual heart with a chorus that work in a stadium. (This one goes “Somebody had a baby/ Somebody had a breakdown/ Yeah, It’s a big day/ In a small town.”) Clark sings about an unexpected pregnancy, about a woman who went to Wal-Mart in her nightgown, the kind of stuff that would get gossips talking anywhere — but she feels as much for the talkers as she does their subjects. Her parade of everyday misfits feels observed instead of idealized: Rather than teach us life lessons, as they might in a Brad Paisley song, the folks here are just living, and Clark’s just asking us to notice them.
The song exemplifies one of Clark’s greatest strengths as a songwriter and performer: she stirs deep empathy. What other singer out there in pop, country, or what-have-you dares to sing about other people — and ask you to think about them rather than the singer?
Three Last Thoughts:
First, Clark’s band was quietly urgent as the players on 12 Stories, a strongly subordinated unit offering a stellar setting for those lyrics. It was a bit of a relief to hear the rhythm section get a little headlong on Clark’s near-hit “Stripes,” the one time it felt she was reacting to them, too, and not just the other way.
Mid-set, Clark sent the band backstage and treated the Highline crowd to solo acoustic renditions of four songs she’s written with and for Nashville hitmakers. The best-known are a pair of last year’s most ferocious number ones, the rockers “Better Dig Two” and “Mama’s Broken Heart,” hits for The Band Perry and Miranda Lambert. Stripped down, and sung with clarity rather than rock-and-roll fire, the songs still proved potent; The Band Perry attacks “Better Dig Two” like they’re Whitesnake, Clark played it like a marble-player — albeit one who shoots with the best of them.
Finally, if you aren’t early for a Highline Ballroom show (and you don’t have reserved seats) you might end up having dinner right behind the sound guy: