This Way Or Some Other (Stanley Records)
Four and a half years ago, when Katie Brianna released her second album, Victim Or The Heroine, it aimed for many key markers. It sounded right, it worked sides of folkish pop, country rock, classic West Coast, and some meatier country, and it asked to be liked in an appealing manner.
That last point resonated especially when understanding why despite doing so many right things, it didn’t really work. Or at least, not enough.
The album’s failure wasn’t in aspiration or performance but – to these ears anyway - in a level of fear of not being liked that saw the songs take more comfortable routes, that saw songs not dig deeper into who she was and, crucially, what they could be. I said in the end that Brianna had done the nice work well, but there was still dirty work to be done.
This Way Or Some Other is the fruit of that dirty work.
There’s a toughness to these songs that has nothing to do with abrasive or overpowering sound (her voice still sounds tender and rounded, from the first notes of Making Believe; the band sit just back and fill spaces, and when they strut up in Boots, it is to bolster, not bluster) or some lyrical descent into stygian gloom. That would be the easy route.
The toughness comes from feeling like you’re getting Brianna, not who Brianna wants to be like, from structure and arrangement to words and feeling teased out fully. It means that she can work a very Lucinda Williams area like Home (blues and the bayou inching its way into country; an adult admitting to cracks) but make you feel like it’s her field she’s ploughing.
The way she holds back and husks up in Running Disaster, with its contrasting open valve guitar sound, reflects the self-aware inner battle between sense and harm, between knowing the wrong and giving in to it anyway. That’s flipped on To The Bottom Of The Drink where Brianna loosens as the band darkens, evoking an escape that begins as release but inevitably heads towards regret.
In Wedding Ring, a languid country ballad finds its grittiness in spools of understated guitar and surprising trumpet eloquence while all the weariness surfaces in her voice. Its success is immediately contrasted with the next track, the perfectly fine but more generic You Only Come To See Me In The Dark, where you can see the route laid out. But even then that feels like she’s demanded a bit more of herself.
Mid-album, Boots works a double shift. Firstly, its Liz Phair-like swing ups the physicality and offers a punchy confidence, Brianna’s voice initially pushed through narrowly and then opening up with a knowing look that refashions her as the one with control. Secondly, it clears the way for the way the second half of the album focuses on how not even feeling in control gives you certainty that your fate is entirely in your hands.
By the time Neil Young’s Birds closes the album – running a full two minutes longer than any other track – Brianna has grown confident enough to pare back sound and singing and let mood take over. It’s a bold move, not least because that six-minute length (more than twice as long as his version on After The Goldrush) will eventually expose any weaknesses in the minimalist approach.
But in Adam Young’s guitar treatment and the return of Ellen Kirkwood’s trumpet, Brianna has found a way to refashion a quiet and pretty song into something more shaded, more ambiguous. More her.