Review: Brandi Carlile – ‘Give up the Ghost’
I mentioned last week, when I shared my recent interview with Brandi Carlile, that I’d have a little more to say about her new release. Give up the Ghost (Oct. 6 on Columbia) is the band’s third full-length record, although they’ve put out a handful of EPs and whatnot through the years. I say “the band” because, while Carlile is herself a gifted singer-songwriter, she’s been playing with Tim and Phil Hanseroth (guitar and bass, respectively) and cellist Josh Neumann for years now. Her music would be an entirely different experience without the Hanseroth twins’ harmonies and songwriting contributions, and without Neumann’s moody, intuitive cello. So, while these four folks travel under Carlile’s name alone, don’t mistaken them for a random assortment of backing players.
The remarkable thing about this record is the breadth of styles, topics, and tones encapsulated in its songs. It could have, quickly and easily, become an unfocused mess of individual tunes – a crowd of intentions lacking common ground. Instead, it comes off a cohesive body of work – something which Carlile indicated in that interview was the band’s general goal. Considering she admitted to feeling like a “caged animal” in the studio, it’s also no surprise the growl-and-crack of her oversized vocals is at its finest, most polished rawness. Indeed, she told me she dragged herself out of bed at ungodly hours during the recording process simply to snag the perfect level of vocal dynamics. It worked. Songs about life on the road (“Dying Day”) and feeling let down and alone (“Looking Out”) feel like her vocals are tied to a cart, pulling a great and massive weight. Other moments (“Caroline,” “I Will”) come off as effortless, instinctual utterances – the kinds of thoughts delivered at once matter-of-factly and sincere.
There are drawbacks, though. Paul Buckmaster’s lush orchestral arrangement on “Pride and Joy” elevates that song to a level the band will likely not accomplish when not joined by a live orchestra, which is most of the time. There are one or two songs which, at first listen, feel outshined by the rest of the disc (“If There Was No You,” “That Year”). Keep listening – they fall into place and find their footing after a few spins. Elton John’s intuitive piano effort and near-perfect backing vocals bounce “Caroline” beyond the capacity of the band’s current synergy. Then again, if the narrative which has unfolded over the course of their first three records continues, we can trust each disc will be another large, impressive step forward.
While it almost goes without saying the creative energy flying between Carlile, the Hanseroths and Neumann is unquestionably strong, this disc seems to grow chiefly from Carlile’s vocal prowess. She’s got that Patsy Cline propensity for singing from inside the song, rather than sticking to the melody around it. Still, anyone who’s caught their live shows is well aware of how quickly they can fill a room with music. The bigness they generate translates simply to this recording, as the disc opens with one of the most sonically spread-out numbers in the bunch (“Looking Out,” where Carlile’s vocals are backed intuitively by harmony master Amy Ray). The rest of the record seems to pull slowly and incrementally toward smallness, emerging more and more into pointed focus as the disc progresses – Mary Poppins packing everything back into her magic bag.
By the time Carlile and company’s big sound flows down to the final song, “Oh Dear,” we hear little more than three voices and a ukulele. Like distilling a painting down to the three primary colors, this reverse slow-build is effective in gathering the listener from all his/her far-flung places. It’ll probably be a good listen once the weather turns entirely to autumn. I’ll leave you with some video of that final song, arguably the best tune of the bunch. You can hear the Queen and Beatles influences here, but they manage to make it not derivative – good stuff: