Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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“The same stories unfold all over town,” Brandy Clark sings on “Illegitimate Children,” towards the end of her debut record. Those “same stories” — tales of quotidian struggle and unglamorous normalcy — are the types of narratives Clark is most interested in telling on 12 Stories, her first full-length release after a near decade of songwriting in Nashville. The simplicity in the title 12 Stories, a reference, perhaps, to J.D. Salinger’s 9 Stories, gives a good sense of Clark’s direct, plain-spoken, songwriting. Tracing the mundanities of everyday survival and regret, her stories are small in scope, large in emotional resonance.
Brandy Clark is most interested in examining, and celebrating, her characters’ (frequently medicinal) means of coping and denial. Her debut is littered with prescription pain-killers and cheap lottery tickets, antidotes and distractions from the realities of adult responsibility. The 35 year-old songwriter leaves her stories to themselves, avoiding any moralizing of her flailing characters. For Clark, who focuses on endless boredoms and dull struggles in her music, relief is king, and no one diversion is better than another. The man who goes to church each Sunday in “Pray To Jesus” is no different from the woman contemplating an extramarital affair in “What Keeps Me Out Of Heaven,” or the restless mother who lets out her daily disappointments by smoking weed alone in her kitchen. They’re all making their way, finding brief solace and necessary comfort in their metaphorical drug of choice.
Working with producer Dave Brainard, Clark’s first record is sparse and clean, and the record feels like an ode to the type of 90’s female country music that Clark considers a primary influence. One of the most refreshing aspects of 12 Stories is that Clark, a Washington native and long-time Nashville resident, is utterly disinterested in posturing a rural authenticity, eschewing pedal steel for the piano in her most affecting ballads (“Hold My Hand,” “What Keeps Me Out Of Heaven”). Clark’s debut is a welcome, engrossing respite from the party-fueled escapism that’s dominated Music City throughout the summer of 2013. 12 Stories, a record full of humor and pain, remorse and reckoning, is one of the very best country debuts of 2013.