For those who were attracted to Brandy Clark’s left-field debut, “12 Stories,” precisely because it presented an alternative in sound and substance to the standard mainstream country fare that surrounded it, hearing the first single from “Big Day in a Small Town,” her major-label follow-up album, must’ve created some doubts. “Girl Next Door” has all the trappings of an unabashed bid for radio notice, with the cluttered, driving pop sound so in vogue in today’s Nashville and a lyric that comes across as a smug, self-satisfied put-down, devoid of subtlety and context — which, in a way, makes it perfect for country radio.
In both respects it’s a striking departure from the sensibilities of “12 Stories.” And “Soap Opera,” the new album’s bouncy, anthemic lead-off song (followed by “Girl Next Door”), built on the lyrical conceit that “we’re all big stars” in our own versions of that daytime TV staple, won’t do much to allay doubts.
But the tenor of that opening does not persist. Clark returns in short order to mining various facets of a sound that is modern, but still finds room for older elements of country music, even as “Big Day” remains sonically bigger and more produced than “12 Stories” throughout. “Broke,” sort of a recapitulation of Johnny Cash’s “Busted,” rides along atop agile country picking. The trying-to-get-over-you ballad “You Can Come Over” offers aching country soul. “Daughter” mates a perfect country lope to a perfect lyrical conception, hitching revenge to winning the genetic lottery, and “Drinkin’ Smokin’ Cheatin’ is a stone-country revisitation of the age-old themes referenced in its title.
Lyrically, Clark — who wrote or co-wrote every song here — treads paths similar to those she followed on “12 Stories,” offering wry chronicles of small-town foibles (“Big Day in a Small Town”) and sketches of the disillusionments (“Homecoming Queen”) and desperations (“Three Kids No Husband”) of ordinary lives, usually female. She once again displays a way with words that can morph a first-person recounting of loss (“Since You’ve Gone to Heaven”) from the familial to the socioeconomic.
If you’re looking for alternatives to mainstream country, Clark is still providing one with “Big Day in a Small Town” — you just have to keep listening beyond the first two tracks to find it.
ESSENTIAL “Big Day in a Small Town”
Stuart Munro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.