Brandy Clark's 2013 debut 12 Stories was very much a songwriter's record: clean, simple, and spare, its arrangements never distracting from the writing. Big Day in a Small Town, released three years later as Clark's first major-label album, is its opposite: a collection of 11 songs buffed and polished with the intention of bringing her music to the widest possible audience. The tight drum loops of "Girl Next Door," the album's first single, signals the biggest aesthetic shift from the front porch picking of 12 Stories, but Clark hasn't abandoned her flair for intimate character sketches or storytelling. "Homecoming Queen" and "Three Kids No Husband" could've easily fit on the debut, but Jay Joyce -- the producer who helmed Eric Church's muscular modern-day outlaw Mr. Misunderstood, and also the Brothers Osborne's Pawn Shop, an album much closer in sound to Big Day in a Small Town than Church's -- gives them subtly textured arrangements, then surrounds these miniatures with bolder sounds. "Broke" plays with modern R&B rhythms that counter its white trash jokes, "Soap Opera" plays its gospel overtones as pop, and the riotous dis of "Daughter" is the only time Clark serves a straight-down-the-middle country song. Big Day in a Small Town slides from sound to sound with ease because Clark's anchor remains her finely rendered intimacy, a skill put into sharp relief by the heartbreak of the album closers "Drinkin' Smokin' Cheatin'" and "Since You've Gone to Heaven." The brighter, funnier songs and the nicely etched smooth ballads "Love Can Go to Hell" and "You Can Come Over" serve as gateways to this Clark signature, and if Big Day in a Small Town occasionally feels like nothing more than a collection of great songs that don't quite gel into a larger picture, that's a minor complaint: songs rarely come much better than these.
Big Day in a Small Town Review
by Stephen Thomas Erlewine