First Impressions: In the Canyon Haze by Brandi Carlile

When did deluxe editions become a thing? In the 1990s, it was fairly common for older albums to be re-issued with improved sound and, to further entice fans to buy the upgrades, bonus tracks that ranged from demos to alternate takes to remixed versions to unreleased songs were tacked on. The albums weren’t identified as “deluxe editions,” however, and became the only version one could purchase (unless one frequented secondhand shops). It’s why some folks, myself included, have bought many albums multiple times throughout our lifetimes—vinyl (or cassette/8-track), CD, remastered CD with bonus tracks, and (as with some Elvis Costello albums) the same remastered CD with bonus tracks that now includes a second disc of live material. It’s madness, I tell you! Utter madness!

My hunch is that the modern “deluxe edition,” which lives side by side with the original release on the music store shelves, started in the early 2000s as an attempt to counterbalance the rampant digital piracy then going on. Six months or so after the album’s release, a new version—sometimes said to be limited to x amount of copies—with new songs would come along and, as a fan, you felt compelled to buy it. It was a cynical endeavor by the record companies, to be sure, much like releasing a “greatest hits” collection that included one or two new songs unavailable elsewhere, yet—depending on artist—often worth the added expense. Off the top of my head, two such examples include the deluxe version of Duffy’s debut, Rockferry; and, from last year, Paul Weller’s deluxe Fat Pop box.

Brandi Carlile’s In the Canyon Haze is a third. When contemplating a “deluxe edition” of her 2021 outing, In These Silent Days, she hit upon the idea of recasting the same songs as if they were recorded in the late 1960s or early ‘70s. On Twitter and elsewhere, she explained that the idea was “inspired by these past few life-altering years of ‘Joni Jams’… I could see the cast of California Dreamers with embroidered flowers and peace signs on their backs drifting through a Polaroid haze. I could smell the marijuana and the incense. I could hear the CSN harmonies traveling through the canyon from Lookout Mountain and the accompanying laughter of Mama Cass…I could feel the liberation, the friction and freedom from modern-day digital distractions that laid such fertile ground at the feet of west coast poets and troubadours.”

Oddly, there are songs and moments on the original incarnation of In These Silent Days that already embrace that long-ago Laurel Canyon sound. “You and Me on the Rock” and “This Time Tomorrow,” for instance, immediately conjure Joni Mitchell and CSN to my ears, while elsewhere Brandi’s vocals rise or fall much like Joni’s circa Clouds or Ladies of the Canyon. The main difference is that In the Canyon Haze further emphasizes the acoustic and harmonic elements of the songs. You can almost imagine a bunch of longhairs hanging in someone’s backyard, billows of sweet-smelling smoke filling the air, while Brandi shares her latest songs while accompanied by several of the same longhairs. 

The mark of a great song is that its strength shines through regardless of format. I’m thinking primarily of Neil Young here, whose “Cinnamon Girl,” “Cowgirl in the Sand” and “Down by the River”—among dozens of others by him—are as stirring when played on acoustic guitar as they are exciting when played electric. Likewise, Crosby & Nash’s Another Stoney Evening—which finds the duo alone on a London stage with just their acoustic guitars—shows the power of stripping songs down to their essence.

In the Canyon Haze doesn’t do that, per se. Acoustic guitars, piano, keyboards and more round out the sound. “Right on Time” and “You and Me on the Rock” embrace the new-old approach with ease, perhaps because they already embraced the Laurel Canyon sound. Strings nearly overwhelm “This Time Tomorrow,” however, and raise unwelcome havoc elsewhere. “Broken Horses,” which I found a tad over the top on the original album, benefits from the new approach, as Brandi’s vocals are reined in, while “Letter to the Past” and particularly “Mama Werewolf” find new power in their understated arrangements. “When You’re Wrong” achieves a proper balance with the strings until late in the game, when they overwhelm the arrangement. “Stay Gentle” now sounds like an outtake from one of Linda Ronstadt’s Nelson Riddle sessions—not a bad thing in and of itself—but not in keeping with the Laurel Canyon sound. “Sinners, Saints and Fools,” on the other hand, keeps the strings in check until its final minute. The original album closer, “Throwing Good After Bad,” was (and is) a stunning tune, stripped to its core on In These Silent Days despite the inclusion of some synth and strings. Its new incarnation fleshes out the original while retaining its power; it remains one of the album’s (many) high points.

The new album closer is a true oddity—David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” Why this song and not one that hailed from the Laurel Canyon era that inspired In the Canyon Haze? That said, it’s a solid take on a true classic, though I’m still partial to Natalie Merchant’s cover from her 1999 live set. That’s likely due to familiarity, however.

All in all, and despite my criticism about the overuse of strings, In the Canyon Haze is well worth seeking out. It’s available from all the usual suspects, including Brandi’s store, with both the LP and CD featuring a fold-out poster of the cover picture. It’s a nice touch reminiscent of the perks the LPs of yore often came with. Also available via Brandi’s store, at least as I write this, is an autographed CD (the LP was sold out almost immediately), though the autograph is actually a signed insert.

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