Saturday, June 18, 2022

CD Odyssey Disc 1566: Brandi Carlile

For the second time in a row I’m reviewing a record from 2009 that I overlooked when it was first released. For readers who think no one is making good music anymore, it may be that you are just missing it. Open your ears and open your hearts – you’ll find what’s right for you.

Disc 1566 is…. Give Up the Ghost

Artist: Brandi Carlile

Year of Release: 2009

What’s up with the Cover? A backlit Brandi rocks out on the guitar. I love the warmth of this album cover. Usually references to ghosts come with gloomy and dark album covers (or in the case of the band, “Ghost” a boatload o’ Satan). Here we have the bright light of day, as we give up the ghost, and turn to the light.

How I Came To Know It: I’m a late convert to Brandi Carlile. I only got into her in 2018 through her album, “By the Way, I Forgive You” (reviewed back at Disc 1135). Afterward I started digging through her back catalogue, but I wasn’t initially taken by her earliest three records, including this one. For some reason I revisited these records (encouraged by a cover album of “The Story”). I recently saw “Give Up the Ghost” used at a good price in my local record store and took a chance.

How It Stacks Up: I now have six Brandi Carlile albums. I have a hard time ranking them, partly because they are all so good, partly because they are all different, and partly because I’ve gotten to know them all in only four years, instead of the 15 year span over which they were released. However, since you don’t read this section for empty equivocations, I’ll say this record slightly edges out “Bear Creek” for #4.

Ratings: 4 stars

Back in 2018 I passed over “Give Up the Ghost” after one listen, but after four more consider me both converted and chastened that I ever passed it over in the first place.

“Give Up the Ghost” came out two years after Carlile’s breakthrough album “The Story” and despite charting higher than that record, it feels like it lives in the shadow of it when Carlile’s discography comes up in conversation. “The Story” may be slightly superior, but it is only slightly, and all the things that make Carlile great are on full display with “Ghost” as well.

We are treated to the fine songwriting that is borne from her longstanding collaboration with the Hanseroth twins, exceptional musicianship throughout, and above it all that one-in-a-generation voice. Carlile’s vocals cut through sunshine and darkness with equal power, delivering songs that are triumphant, tragic and always tell a story. It is hard to understand just what makes one voice draw you under a spell and another fade into the background, but Carlile is the former.

Fitting for an album titled “Give Up the Ghost” many of these songs are stories about letting the past go, although usually only after first coming to terms with its lessons. The standout “Pride and Joy” is a song of parting and forgiveness, I think about a departed parent. Lines like:

“That’s the problem with the days
They’re never long enough to say
What it is you never said
All the books you never read.”

Leave you with unresolved regret, and images like:

“All your mountains turn to rocks
All your oceans turn to drops”

Demonstrate how our strongest convictions can tumble down into the chaos of uncertainty. Both sections also show how great she is at the power of the rhyming couplet (and yes, I know that last one doesn’t rhyme. This is a song not Alexander Pope, people).

The song ends with soaring strings that add a lovely emotional flourish without crowding the production. The album has a full sound but with a lot of space in between elements. It was brilliantly balanced, and I was not at all surprised to discover it was produced by Rick Rubin.

Another standout is “That Year”, also a song combining forgiveness and reminiscence. Carlile belts out a lot of tunes, but “That Year” opts for a light sweet tone, that still cuts through the air in the room with easy power.

The record is not perfect. “Dreams” had a sort of manic showtune quality that didn’t appeal to me, and the old timey “Caroline” is marred by a jumpy “Old West barroom” piano style that felt hokey. I looked to see who was playing, and it turns out it was a guest spot for…Sir Elton John. Sorry, Elton, but I write ‘em like I hear ‘em.

Fortunately there is lots of good piano, notably Carlile’s own graceful playing on “Before It Breaks”. The tune rides right up to the edge of overwrought, but the vocals are so powerful they are like a centrifugal force that holds everything steady. In moments like this Carlile’s natural talent and phrasing pulls the song through hairpin emotional corners with the grace of a biker leaning close to the road and hitting the throttle.

The album ends with a light-hearted tune backed by a ukulele which is a bit too dear but by this point it was too late to ruin anything. I was hooked. I love this record, and my biggest criticism is leveled at myself; I should’ve bought it years ago.

Best tracks: Looking Out, Dying Day, Pride and Joy, That Year, Before It Breaks

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A gifted musician and great humanitarian Lenora