There’s something great about an artist so comfortable in her own skin that she can be this confident on a record when she’s clearly most comfortable performing her music in a live setting. In fact, she told No Depression magazine, she often feels like a caged animal in the studio and had to force herself to record at odd hours to catch her voice in the perfect conditions to achieve that ethereal quality fans have come to know as her own distinct musical aura.
Give Up The Ghost, due out Tuesday on the Sony label, is her finest album yet … and as a huge fan of her sophomore album The Story that’s hard for me to say, considering how much I admired the music she crafted, often in single takes, with producer T-Bone Burnett. But she proves on this material that even with super-producer Rick Rubin behind the board and superstar contributions including Paul Buckmaster’s orchestra (“Pride And Joy”), Elton John’s piano (“Caroline”) and Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls’ lush vocals (“Looking Out”) she manages to keep this material sounding freshly original and, above all, creative.
Leadoff single “Dreams” may be the catchiest song she’s released to radio to date, and it’s the kind of song which could, and should, earn her a wider audience than even The Story‘s 325,000 copies sold and numerous TV show placements were able to provide. But the album plays exceptionally well as a whole, with what is becoming a trademark for Carlile — absolutely no filler whatsoever. She’s a smart songwriter and she’s surrounded herself with top guest musicians, but the true strength of these songs is the backing band she’s toured and recorded with for years: twins Tim and Phil Hanseroth and cellist Josh Neumann. There’s a strong sense of continuity here on Give Up The Ghost and it pays off in spades with what may be among the top five albums of 2009 when all we pretentious critics start making such lists.
More interestingly, the album decelerates from its most indulgent arrangements at the start to its barest, most elemental effort, the album’s closer “Oh Dear.” It’s a move which often fails, as today’s listeners are frequently victims of their short attention spans. However, with Carlile’s album the strategy lends the album a great deal more heft. Listeners are lured into the album by the strong songwriting and they stay for the whole ride despite the eventual stripping away of instruments from the various arrangements. The result is a great reward, one of the most Beatlesque songs not written by Lennon / McCartney. It’s almost as good as The Story‘s “Shadow On The Wall,” a personal favorite.
Get this album quickly, you won’t regret it. Buy it for yourself and get a few extra copies for friends. It’s the kind of album you’ll hear and immediately want to share with everyone you meet. But that’s Carlile’s music in a nutshell. She’s an aural bridge-builder and her music is destined to be heard by a wide audience even as she makes it abundantly clear on album three that she’s not going to succumb to pretension or excess. She plans to continue to write meaningful music, marketing be damned.
And that’s how it bloody should be.