It's generally good to be wary of a band or musician featured on Grey's Anatomy. Although the immensely popular ABC drama has helped some up-and-coming indie artists get their music heard, it has also become notorious for churning out radio-friendly placid pop musicians. How many times do we have to hear The Fray's "How To Save a Life" while waiting for coffee at Starbucks, anyway? Trepidation ran deep when word got out that Brandi Carlile's song, "Turpentine," was not only being used on the show, but being used in commercials to promote Private Practice, a spin-off. I couldn't bear to see another great artist fall victim to overexposure, or worse, stasis.
Luckily, though, Carlile, "Turpentine," and her entire new album, The Story, are anything but innocuous. Since emerging two years ago with her self-titled debut, fans and critics alike have tried in vain to define Brandi Carlile's sound. Attempting to find the right adjectives to describe her voice have clearly resulted in several trips to the thesaurus. It's been called rootsy, roomy, bittersweet, firm and purposeful. And that's potentially all at once -- Carlile has the range to switch from a bluesy growl to a sweet and vulnerable soprano at the drop of a hat, putting her in the unique strain of musicians who can manage to compress a wide range of emotions into a short burst of melody. Her fearless tendency to let loose this raw power suffuses her performances with sincerity, earning her comparisons to a barrel of earthy, earnest musicians (Patsy Cline, k.d. lang, Neko Case, Sheryl Crow, etc.). The best way to categorize the Washington native, then, might be under the banner of pure, timeless talent.
You usually don't get filed under that heading until you're dead and gone, though, so the labels applied to her don't often fit well. Listed under Americana in the record store, Carlile is more roots-rock than country. Her sound defies genre typecasting. Although it rings clear through her voice that traditional country musicians have influenced Carlile, her songs are also dusted with the sounds of rock and pop artists. Carlile lists Radiohead, Elton John and Jeff Buckley under her favorite musicians, occasionally playing covers of their songs.
When all is said and done, if you really want to know what all the fuss is about, you'll need to go see Brandi Carlile live. Accompanied by her band, twin brothers Phil and Tim Hanseroth, Carlile has made her name with electrifying performances. The atmosphere she conjures live is so important that she builds it into her studio efforts. The Story was recorded over an 11-day period on the road with the explicit intent to capture this live sound, and the near flawless end product proves the success of this approach, as well as her abilities onstage.
Despite being lured into the machine that is Grey's Anatomy, then, Brandi Carlile lets her music speak for itself, and that voice is clear as a bell. She has the talent, potential and motivation to join the ranks of the musicians she admires. Anyway, being heard by millions on Grey's Anatomy is better than never being heard at all, right?
Brandi Carlile at the Big Easy on Thursday, May 24 at 8 pm. $10. Visit www.ticketswest.com or call 325-SEAT.