Brandi Carlile: “Give Up the Ghost”
Country-rock is not a particular flashy genre; it’s sturdy, deeply rooted in tradition. Its very name combines two of American music’s earthiest, most established musical idioms, and, going back at least as far as Gram Parsons, the music has mostly traded in close-to-the-bone lyricism and heartland melodies that emphasize visceral, instant gratification over something as intellectual or heady as musical evolution. Which is not to say that the music hasn’t, or won’t, evolve– just that, when it does, it’s probably going to be a slow and steady thing, not a sudden seismic shift.
Brandi Carlile’s third album, Give Up the Ghost, is country-rock for 2009. And it is, make no mistake, country-rock, both in its sound and its personnel: The instruments are rootsy and rugged, the arrangements earthy and unadorned, and Benmont Trench– who has a professional history with both Tom Petty and Bob Dylan— is her keys player. But this is a thoroughly modern record made by a thoroughly modern woman: Carlile inherited both her country and her rock from Elton John (particularly Tumbleweed Connection), she learned how to write snappy melodies by listening to the Beatles, she absorbed her songwriting chops from rocker-chicks like Alanis Morissette and Melissa Ethridge, and she frequently models her singing after Thom Yorke’s anguished warble.
Give Up the Ghost is the sum of all these influences and more, but they’re internalized and then spit back out in the form of rootsy rockers and heart-on-sleeve ballads that betray enough of a debt to the classic sounds of this genre that their divergences from it might at first be hard to miss. “Dreams” simply sounds like a ripping good rock and roll song with a bit of twang to it at first, the Beatles-esque melodicism only becoming apparent slyly and over time. “Pride and Joy” sounds at first like Thom Yorke fronting a typical rock ballad, but then you pick up on some of the hazy atmospherics, and the fact that the song itself could almost pass for one of The Bends‘ paeans to angst and frustration. The most obvious way in which Carlile shows her hand is in “Caroline,” when she invites Sir Elton himself to duet with her over a rollicking piano line– but ironically, that song has a melody that’s more authentically country than anything on Tumbleweed Connection.
As a lyricist, Carlile writes songs that aren’t nearly so classicist: She’s more in tune with the girl-power rockers of the 90s or even certain indies of today, most obviously Conor Oberst. Her poetry scans much better than his, but she has a similar chip on her shoulder and a similar predisposition toward angst and despair, but thankfully, she channels her soul-searching into something much broader. This album encapsulates a search for truth and a tentative belief in love as a remedy for pain and sadness– though there’s still plenty of pain and sadness here. She waxes philosophical on opener “Looking Out,” which wonders if suffering is just a matter of one’s point of view, but the song’s conversational tone– it was inspired by a series of love letters– brings it down to earth. “Dying Day” is a ravishing love song, its lyrics surveying toil and strife but its resolute romanticism making it empowering. “Before it Breaks,” the album’s most affecting ballad, offers weathered encouragement about growing through pain: “Say I’m better than you left me… I can make my own mistakes/ Let it bend before it breaks.”
Rick Rubin produces the set, and it’s an entirely different affair than the Avett Brothers album he produced, which released just one week prior. That album was slick and polished but also, somehow, sparse-sounding; this album has a lot more going on, yet it feels more organic. Rubin captures Carlile and her studio band banging through careening rockers and pained ballads alike, and he simply gives them room to do their thing: The arrangements are full and fleshed-out, but they never overpower the songs. What does sometimes overpower the songs is Carlile herself, who tends to tackle her songs rather than caress them, approaching each one with full-bore intensity. Rubin’s greatest gift to this set, and to Carlile as a musician, then, is the way that he helps her to lighten and loosen up on some of the album’s lighter songs: On the rollicking “Caroline” or the gentle “I Will,” she simply lets the songs speak for themselves, which drives home just what a stupendous batch of songs these are. Give Up the Ghost lets its emotions run high, and the results are sometimes enlivening, sometimes devastatingly sad, but always proof that, even in 2009, conuntry-rock is still kicking hard.