N.Y. Times- Songs Stamped With Casual Authority Brandy Clark Takes the Spotlight at the Highline Ballroom


Near the midpoint of a no-nonsense show at the Highline Ballroom on Friday night, Brandy Clark dismissed her backing band and got down to basics: her voice, her guitar and what she called “songs that I’ve written for other people.”

Strikingly, there was no reference to Kacey Musgraves — Nashville’s newest anointed rule bender, whose debut album has Ms. Clark’s credit on several tracks — in the acoustic mini-set that followed. But there were distillations of “Better Dig Two,” a No. 1 country hit for the Band Perry, and “Mama’s Broken Heart,” which very nearly got the same chart result for Miranda Lambert. And, for the first time in front of an audience, Ms. Clark performed “Two Rings Shy,” which appears on Ms. Lambert’s knockout new album, delivering a brand-consistent message of discerning pluck.

Old habits are hard to break, so it stands to reason that Ms. Clark, a Music Row veteran, could make a headlining concert feel like an industry showcase. Congenially talking her way through the set list, she didn’t budge from her mark onstage or attempt the merest flicker of mystique. At one point, she noted that as of last May, she had never been to New York City — and that since then she had passed through town seven times.

What accounted for the change was “12 stories” (Slate Creek), one of the most acclaimed country releases of 2013, if hardly one of the most widely heard. A well-chosen bundle of her songs, finely drawn and sharply observed, the album cast her as both a formalist and a sly subversive, the kind of country songwriter to put an insouciant spin on a desperate situation. “Stripes,” the closest thing on the album to a breakout single, depicts a wronged woman’s thirst for vengeance, held in check only by her vanity.

Ms. Clark gave that tune pride of place in the show, before “Take a Little Pill,” with its bitter cloud of resignation. She’s a strong, sure-footed vocalist but not a terribly expressive performer, so the songs that landed best were those that make an impression without much help: “Pray to Jesus,” a thumbnail portrait of half-hopeful stasis, and “What Will Keep Me Out of Heaven,” a tortured pause at the threshold of infidelity.

The plea for a lover’s reassurance in “Hold My Hand” was painted in plain but elegant strokes: “Let her know for sure/That I’m more than just a soft place to land.” It’s grown-folks’ business, these songs, and Ms. Clark stamped them with a casual authority.

But her band, which had her album’s producer, Dave Brainard, filling in on lead guitar, could have been leaner and less generic. And Ms. Clark is clearly still acclimating to the spotlight. Her next album will be a marker of progress, as were the newer songs in the show. Among them were “Broke,” spirited but glib, and “Big Day in a Small Town,” both funnier and smarter. “Somebody’s getting married,” she sang, “Or buried/Or carried away.” That wryness suited her; it felt like a song she’d written for herself.

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