TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Rock critic Ken Tucker has a review of Brandy Clark's debut album, called "12 Stories." Clark is a singer-songwriter from Washington state who in recent years, has made an impact in Nashville as a songwriter. She's written or co-written hits for acts as various as Miranda Lambert, the band Perry, and Kacey Musgraves.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PRAY TO JESUS")
BRANDY CLARK: (Singing) We live in trailers and apartments, too. From California to Kalamazoo. Grow up, getting married, and when that one ends, we hate sleeping alone so we get married again. Don't want to be buried in debt or in sin, so we pray to Jesus and we play the lotto. 'Cause there ain't but two ways we can change tomorrow. And ain't no genie and ain't no bottle. So we pray to Jesus, and we play the lotto...
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: That's "Pray to Jesus," the song that leads off "12 Stories," Brandy Clark's modestly amazing album. "Pray to Jesus" isn't a conventionally religious song. It sets up what will be a recurring theme throughout this collection: a quick, precise sketch of specific people - mostly rural, many of them working-class - who don't see a heck of a lot going right in their lives, now or in the foreseeable future.
So as Clark sings: We pray to Jesus and we play the Lotto 'cause there ain't but two ways we can change tomorrow. Clark is working in a time-honored tradition, yet managing to articulate it in a fresh way.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT'LL KEEP ME OUT OF HEAVEN")
CLARK: (Singing) I know I shouldn't be here tonight. I hardly know this man. It's been a long time since I felt as pretty as he tells me I am. I've met him at a coffee shop, and I've met him in the park. But I've never been alone with him in this dress after dark. There's so many shades of gray; this is black and white. He's some stranger's husband, and I'm some stranger's wife. Ten floors up, he's waiting with champagne and candlelight. What'll keep me out of heaven will take me there tonight.
TUCKER: That lovely melody and astringent twang vocal are in the service of a slightly sordid scenario: a married woman having an affair with a married man - or, as Clark phrases it: He's some stranger's husband; I'm some stranger's wife. The clever clincher is the chorus couplet: What'll keep me out of heaven will take me there tonight.
That Jesus she was praying to in the first song is now the God condemning adultery, but the narrator just can't help herself. This willingness to sing in the persona of someone we might not necessarily like is at once Clark's signal claim to adventurousness, and what's probably going to keep her album from climbing very high on the country charts.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAKE A LITTLE PILL")
CLARK: (Singing) Mama got depressed when Daddy was dying so the doctor gave her something to help her with her crying. Then she couldn't sleep so he gave her something else. Now there's yellow, red and pink on a bathroom shelf. Says if one won't work, then another one will. If you've got a little hurt, you take a little pill...
TUCKER: Clark is working in a tradition that hops back a few decades. She comes out of the era of 1980s country women such as Reba McEntire, The Judds, K.T. Oslin, Pam Tillis, and Roseanne Cash before country got too confining for her. These were among the most full-throated women staking a claim for progressive freedoms within the confines of country's intrinsically conservative social scenarios.
These days, at a time when some of the biggest male country stars are literally singing the praises of women's rear ends and the joys of nonstop tailgate parties, someone like Brandy Clark comes across like a terse realist novelist, landing somewhere between Sarah Orne Jewett and Mary Gaitskill. For example, one theme that runs through "12 Stories" is that alcohol may help you unwind, but it also helps things fall apart.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HUNGOVER")
CLARK: (Singing) I did the laundry. I cleaned the kitchen. Swept up the pieces of those broken dishes. I drank my coffee while yours got colder - all while you were hung over. I put on lipstick. I planted roses. Painted the bathroom, but you never noticed. I felt the first chill of October all while you were hung over. Baby, your head ain't the only thing hurting, you know. The sun keeps coming up even if the curtains are closed. The girl in the mirror...
TUCKER: "12 Stories" is one of those rare albums whose every song is worth hearing - every one is that striking, that textured and finely detailed. It is my fervent hope that Clark, who's helped other women achieve hit singles, will have her own hits from among these smoothly crafted, emotionally rough compositions.
GROSS: Rock critic Ken Tucker reviewed "12 Stories" by Brandy Clark. You can see a video of her song "Pray to Jesus" on our website. That's freshair.npr.org.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ILLEGITIMATE CHILDREN")
CLARK: (Singing) She's getting hammered on Alabama slammers. Three drinks ago, no, he wouldn't stand a chance. He's sipping whiskey, feeling confident and frisky. Writes "Slow Hand" on a 20, and slips it to the band. By the end of the first verse, they're out on the floor. By the end of the song, they're out the door. Spirits are up, inhibitions are down. Same stories unfolding all over town. From the barroom to the bedroom, the paths weathered and warm, this is how illegitimate children are born...
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