If ever there were a Northwestern style of ballad singing, Brandi Carlile's voice would be the model. Not a traditional ballad singer in the Southern folk sense, she's an honest rock singer whose voice can flutter like a gold finch and scream like a hawk. Her sound echoes the romantic, electric shores of Bruce Springsteen and the wooden tenderness of Emmylou Harris. A sound that produced 2007's The Story, the title track to which stole the thunder from a Grey's Anatomy episode, and solidified a core audience who have been selling out her concerts ever since.
Brandi's most recent release, 2009's Giving Up The Ghost, has earned rave reviews. The album took more than a year to record, unlike The Story, which was recorded in less than two weeks. "We handled each song as its own record," Carlile tells Xpress. "We were selective in how we set up the song, which instruments to use and who would play on it."
With all that attention paid to each individual track, the album still plays as a complete thought. There is a beginning and an ending. As one song exhales, the next one inhales and responds to the last.
The focus and study on themes and lyrics also contributed to the labor of love, which is Giving Up The Ghost. In press for the album, Carlile explains what the title is about: "To give up the ghost is to make a transition from one life to the next and transcend time in order to grow. This is to say that the songs on this record are time travelers instead of glimpses into the present and onto the road."
Carlile tells Xpress: "The whole album was about pushing, pushing, pushing further below the surface of the moment. We wanted to tap into the subconscious, which I believe is a more honest place."
It was this emotional mining that led to introspective songs about finding truth, pining for the one that got away and remorse for bruised friendships left in limbo.
The album starts off searching with "Looking Out." A song that starts with driving acoustic guitar and trembling singing, then builds into a throw-down rock anthem about love, fear and truth. "And when I asked a corner preacher/ I couldn't hear him from my youth/ Some people get religion/ Some people get the truth/ I never get the truth." The song also features Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls on vocals.
Throughout the album the listener is taken on a cloudy hike of emotions, with sunny moments peaking in and out over 11 tracks. "Dreams," the first single from the record, was inspired by sex dreams, Carlile admits in a press video. "I keep it to myself/ I know what it means/ I can't have you but I have dreams." The song was co-written by her fellow band members, Tim and Phil Hanseroth. Often referred to as "The Twins," Tim and Phil share songwriting duties, play guitar and bass, and add layers of Beatles/Queen inspired backing vocals. Josh Neumann covers that gray area between bass and guitar with his haunting cello.
The most rollicking song on the album is "Caroline.'" The song is a duet between Brandi and her longtime musical hero Elton John, who also cut a piano track for the tune in one take. She flew to Las Vegas to record the track with John, who was taken by her music and has an enthusiasm for new music in general. So much so that he sent Carlile a box of 100 records that she is pecking away at.
Carlile has quite the set of collaborators: The record also features Chad Smith (Red Hot Chili Peppers) on drums, Benmont Tench (Tom Petty) on organ and Pete Thomas (Elvis Costello & The Attractions). Paul Buckmaster, who wrote string arrangements for early Elton John records, helped Brandi realize a personal dream by arranging strings for her tune "Pride And Joy."
"It was a great day when we watched him conduct the string session," she says. "I had his picture on my wall when I was 12."
After all the questioning, after all the joys and the sorrows that Giving Up The Ghost offers, Carlile closes the album with "Oh Dear." "Oh dear, out here/ Everybody stumbles on fear/ Who cares if we're scared? / Everyone is on their own." It's a somewhat matter-of-fact lullaby. The one responsible for your happiness is you. You are scared and so am I and we are no different from anyone else. That is a sentiment that exists in every genre of music all over the world. And that is part of the timelessness of Carlile's music. It comes from going straight to the heart of a situation, and coming back with a bandana tied around your wrist, raising your voice about it.
[Brian McGee can be reached at email@example.com.]
who: Brandi Carlile, with Amy Ray
where: The Orange Peel
when: Tuesday, Feb. 9 (8 p.m. $21/$23. www.theorangepeel.net)