Filed under: album, review | Tags: 2009, brandi carlile, music, sacha whitmarsh
Give Up The Ghost ••••
Brandi Carlile’s exceptional vocal range just expanded. Third album Give Up The Ghost takes the Washington-born singer-songwriter’s greatest asset and pushes it way beyond its already wide parameters. Still present is her characteristic half-yodel, the way she can leave her voice to slide up or down a scale, knowing she will hit the note perfectly when she gets there. But this time she takes her voice further, stronger, longer, higher. Much higher, actually. Gone are the growls, gone is the angry teenage attitude, and in their place is a calmer, wiser woman, contemplative and full of acceptance, of letting be and letting go. First, though, a reminder of those early days in the form of album opener ‘Looking Out’, a song which could sit happily on either of Carlile’s first two releases. Here, her familiarly defiant delivery is augmented by the gravelly backing vocals of idol-turned-friend Amy Ray of Indigo Girls, creating an exhilarating torrent of sound. It’s a signpost for the confidence of the album as a whole, charging at full pelt with its head held way up high.
Together with her longtime collaborators, the Hanseroth twins Tim and Phil, Carlile finally comes closes to capturing the passion and energy of their live sound on Give Up The Ghost. Having openly admitted to feeling uncomfortable in the studio, this time around the songs are simply allowed to be themselves and the flourishes are unobtrustive. On ‘Dying Day’, a song sung entirely unplugged at live shows, they’ve cracked it, achieving the huge auditorium sound without any tacky reverb. The album’s biggest surprise is ‘Pride & Joy’, a song that has undergone more twists, additions and modifications than probably any of their tracks. It became the new ‘My Song’, a gritty, personal anthem: “Do I make you proud? Do you get me now? Am I your pride and joy?” Beginning life as an acoustic affair, it gathered layer after layer so that by the time it was recorded it was a musical powerhouse, ramped up by Tim Hanseroth’s sublime, charged guitar into their most mature and sophisticated song to date; their first real masterpiece. Bravely, the band have cast all that work aside, chopping it in half and choosing to enhance the emotion by paring the song down rather than building it up. Taking it back to its acoustic roots, they opt instead for orchestral backing from string maestro Paul Buckmaster, giving Carlile’s vocals room to soar. It’s a wonderful arrangement; a different kind of powerful. It’s majestic and hugely moving, guaranteed to chink the armour of anyone who has wrestled with identity or difference of any kind.
The epic guitar is saved instead for the immense ‘Before It Breaks’, a bleak and sorrowful plea for relationship survival (“Say it’s over, say I’m dreaming / say I’m better than you left me”) and a fine example of what the rockier incarnation of the band is capable of. At the other end of the spectrum, there is beauty in its simple, raw state. ‘That Year’ is an acceptance; Carlile’s honest account of her lengthy personal struggle to forgive a friend who killed himself when she was sixteen and is presented, fittingly, as a lone guitar song. But Give Up The Ghost is not without a sense of humour. It’s impossible not to enjoy the jaunty, cheeky romp of first single ‘Dreams’, or the way Carlile bounces her way through the ragtime duet of ‘Caroline’ with her childhood hero Elton John, who also adds his own superb piano to the track. The Hanseroths add some wonderful ooo-la-la-las here and, later, give Art Garfunkel a run for his money with some beautifully sweet, high vocals. They even throw in some late night, under the street light whistling on ‘If There Was No You’.
Having thrown open the musical doors, letting so many influences in and belting so much back out, the album starts to close back in on itself. All of the last four tracks are acoustic and exist in really very pure forms. By anyone’s reckoning then, Give Up The Ghost is an album of extremes: the bigger songs are huge and the smaller stripped bare. Does it limp away? It’s hard to be sure. The final tracks certainly stay with you; Carlile is, after all, incredibly gifted in writing simple, nagging melodies. But it’s the emotional depths of ‘Pride & Joy’ and ‘Before It Breaks’, the tracks which take the band from being consistently good to truly great, that hold the most promise of what they can and will achieve.
Available on import only; www.myspace.com/brandicarlile
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