It's possible to place countless movies and TV shows within a very specific time frame based on whether they feature certain songs: Baja Men's "Who Let the Dogs Out," Smash Mouth's "All Star" and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros' "Home" all provide a form of pop-cultural carbon dating, as well as signifiers of a tone that's both specific and universal. Brandi Carlile's 2007 hit "The Story" didn't quite reach those songs' level of ubiquity — it popped up on Grey's Anatomy during the height of that show's powers, and was prominently featured in a series of commercials during the 2008 Summer Olympics — but it did establish Carlile as a singer with a huge, powerful voice and a gift for connecting with listeners on a gut level. It was a song of its moment, yet still timeless in its message.
Carlile's new album, Bear Creek, follows nicely in that spirit (vocal power, lyrical accessibility) without trying to replicate the specific moves of the ballad that made her name. In the tradition of the best bluesy folk-rock singers who preceded her — think Janis Joplin or Melissa Etheridge, but with less bluster than either — Carlile sings with restrained power and from-the-gut force.
She's aided, on all her records and in this concert at the NPR Music offices, by twins Phil and Tim Hanseroth, whose guitars and gorgeous vocal harmonies help ground her within the impeccable chug of an airtight rock band. Performing together — whether storming wildly in "Raise Hell" or swooning gently in the string-swept set-closer "A Promise to Keep" — Carlile and her band sound tremendously assured. They're in complete control, even (or perhaps especially) when they're singing heart-on-sleeve songs about messy lives, loudly lived.
Producer and Editor: Bob Boilen; Videographers: Becky Lettenberger and Nick Michael; Audio Engineer: Kevin Wait; photo by Blake Lipthratt/NPR