Brandi Carlile: Give Up The Ghost
Ah, yes. Deep breath. Oh muffins, the long anticipated release of Brandi’s Carlile’s third album, “Give up the Ghost” is here. FUCKING FINALLY! Rejoice! Their previous record, “The Story” dropped back in April of 2007. Yes, you are counting right…TWO AND ONE HALF YEARS AGO. It’s been agonizing. Brandi fans began prematurely salivating in anticipation last year when insiders pegged them at Blackbird Studios in Nashville recording away. Thus, we naturally assumed that we’d have a brand new shiny album to jam our little hearts out to by the end of 2008.
Yeah, no. Apparently they scrapped that entire recording effort. It wasn’t right. Wasn’t good enough. And who can argue with that? Expecting perfection, understanding that the material they possessed was TOO.FUCKING.GOOD to be presented and preserved in a mediocre manner. The fans deserved better…hell, they deserved better. They want to be proud of what they put out. They understand their indefinable potential as musicians. That is admirable. THAT is why I respect them so much. They don’t make music to buy fancy cars or multi million dollar mansions. They don’t crave the fame. It’s not about the money. They make music because it’s in their blood. It is who they are. I hate to be cliche, but, this is what they were born to do. And boy if that doesn’t shine through on this record.
Brandi and the boys (Tim Hanseroth, Phil Hanseroth and Josh Neumann) have been touring relentlessly since 2007. Wearily crusading across the country, suitcase and instruments in tow, playing show after show, staying late to greet their biggest fans–always with a smile and a hug, always thanking the individual, the one who drove eight hours to see them perform, always understanding that without these devoted followers they would not be where they are today. They GET it.
They used this time on the road to write some fresh new material, and to then craft those songs from their rudimentary incarnation to the technically advanced and perfected versions we now hear on the record– playing them for live audiences, gauging the crowd’s reactions, getting a feel of the flow and the energy, all the while honing their skills as musicians and giving each outing 110 percent. They never let you in on how fatigued they are–they aren’t going to stand onstage and complain about the red eye flights, trans-Atlantic hops, how lonely and sick of the traveling they are. They won’t do that. The crowd injects them with adrenaline–and you best believe you are going to get a kick-ass show regardless of any band member’s personal issues. They leave any problems on the tour bus…and then give you every ounce of energy they have left while on stage. I remember after I took my parents to a show in Houston back in September of 2007–my third show EVER (I’ve been to more than twenty at this point)– my dad said to me afterward–“She sure does sing her heart out, doesn’t she?” Damn straight she does.
Now on to the review:
I am not sure if I’ve given it enough time to sink in yet. I’ve heard each of the eleven songs on the record a million times (estimation), but each listen hand delivers my ears something new to admire–whether it be an inflection in Brandi’s voice, a pluck on the electric guitar, or the brilliance evident in the vocal layering. Something new. Something different. Something that leaves my mouth agape in awe and admiration.
I’ll be honest with you, because I always am, but the first time I heard this album–I wasn’t blown away. I just wasn’t. My expectations were sky-high. I wanted it to change the way I view music. I wanted it to literally knock my socks off with its bad-assness. And I will go ahead and address my negativity right at the start– I felt that the vocals lacked passion.
There I said it.
I will probably face the wrath of an army of Brandi devotees. But, please understand that I am in no way a music critic. I am just one person. I hear things and I process and internalize them the way my little brain is programmed to do. I’m different than everyone else–and just because I feel a certain way about something doesn’t mean that I’m right or wrong. So, there is my disclaimer.
Now let me discuss why I feel (felt) that way.
I am a literary geek. I have said it many times– I think poetically. I view the world in this way. Thus, in the musical sphere of things I am most moved by a song’s lyrics–if I can’t connect to them or see them as a carefully crafted piece of art then I am more than likely not going to be a fan. At least initially.
I view them as little short stories. A peek inside of the many complexities of the human mind. Lyrics provide the listener with a glimpse at the musician’s most private and intimate thoughts. Oftentimes I feel almost uncomfortable hearing them. Brandi and the twins are especially insightful–airing out their dirty laundry for the world to hear. It seems that they find some semblance of absolution from this outlet. They are incredibly schooled in the musical world–they understand that the amount of touring they endure could EASILY narrow the breadth of their writing to the point of drowning in myopia–only reflective of their immediate surroundings. So they have made a conscious effort to step OUT of that mindset and into one of wider issues.
In fact there is only one “road” song on the album–and it’s a barn burner, folks. It bares a strong resemblance in terms of attitude to “What Can I Say?” and “Have You Ever” from previous releases–it’s the down-home, acoustic, soul searching, foot-stompin’, finger snappin’ crowd favorite. If you find yourself not wanting to clap along and bop your head along with Brandi as she belts out the chorus in “Dying Days,” the second song on the album–then you have a broken brain…and I urge you to get that checked out IMMEDIATELY. It’s just an all-around authentic tune–and I can PROMISE you that it captures the same energy that is immensely evident in the live performances. For those unfamiliar with Brandi or her live shows–she plays this song unplugged–solely acoustic–with just her vocal power to carry it into the back rows of the theater she inhabits. And the recorded version sounds EXACTLY the same, which says a whole hell of a lot about Ms. Carlile’s singing ability, but they were able to ADD touches, nuances and instruments (specifically cello, sigh) that give it a fuller more incredible sound. It takes that unplugged vibe and multiples it by a bajillion. I’m very impressed with how it was translated to the record. In fact, I can find no faults there.
What I dig most about this record is the variety that is at once evident. The album starts off with a bang with the intellectually rawkin’ “Looking Out.” Featuring the gritty androgynous vocals of the Indigo Girls’ Amy Ray (a personal favorite of mine), the opening track immediately offers pensive brooding lyrics expressing angst, confusion and apprehension about life and love in a fast-paced no holds barred kinda way. It’s an immediate punch to the system–letting you know that this album is not going to be easy-breezy and soothing to the soul. So be prepared.
We then segue into “Pride and Joy,” a song that’s been making the tour rounds since the spring of 2007–ever evolving, ever transforming as the band smoothed out the kinks–experimenting with different keys, different instrumentation, different tones, different tempos–they even added a slow building yet phenomenal rock’n’roll ending to it that brings the house down EVERY SINGLE TIME–no matter how often you’ve seen it. Yes, it’s that awesome.
But, for the record they went a completely different route–bringing back that original heartfelt acoustic sound–slow, passionate verses tinged with sorrow and painful memories–and then the crescendo of strings at the end truly carries Brandi’s voice to a completely different level of amazing. It’s just… just perfect.
Let’s talk about Pride and Joy for a minute longer.
I was taking a bubble bath today, lights off, candles burning, headphones on–concentrating on nothing other than the music filtering in and out of my ear. Pride and Joy came on–track 3–and I admit I got a lump in my throat and perhaps a teary eye. Now, I’m not an over-emotional woman folk when it comes to movies or music. Shit. I’ve never cried after hearing a song in my entire life. But, fuck.
Music is always up to interpretation by the listener, which, of course, is the beauty of it. And I analyze lyrics to death. I try to relate to every song I hear–and if I can’t–it’s not as powerful nor as interesting to me as it would have been otherwise. Pride and Joy stabs my heart, not once, but as many times as it can in the 3 minutes or so the song continues on for. It stabs, twists, and proceeds to absolutely shreds it to pieces. Why? Because of my perception of what mindset Brandi most likely wrote these lyrics from. As a twenty-three year old kid–as a daughter to two wonderful parents–parents who are very southern and conservative, with religious upbringings and very strong opinions in the political and moral arena….as someone who came out as a lesbian about a year and a half ago–I feel that I can relate HEAVILY to this song.
I’ve always felt that. I’ve always believed this song to be about her parent’s reaction to her coming out. And if it’s not about that, it sure as shit doesn’t lessen the impact of how I respond to the lyrics. The chorus to this tune has shifted rather dramatically since it’s inception–and honestly I never really believed that particular change to be a positive one. I thought it weakened the entire song.
And then I cried when I finally grasped the significance of it:
“Where are you now? Do you let me down? Do you make me grieve…for you?
Do I make you proud? Do you get me now? Am I your pride…and joy?”
I can’t even handle it. Personal experiences y’all. Those thoughts absolutely without a doubt run through your head. You make a huge sacrifice and gamble when sharing that part of your life with your family. You have no clue what the repercussions of that admission will have upon you and your relationship with those you love the most. It could completely destroy everything. You don’t know. You can only hope. It’s a big risk. You want them to be there for you. You want, so desperately, for them to understand, to comfort you during your moments of weakness, when you are so unsure about your future. They are your parents and you expect them to be there for you. You expect them to love you–to make things right–to hold you and be there by your side no matter what your sexual orientation is. But, the truth is…. they might not be. It’s a harsh reality. My mom told me that she lost something that day I told her. She told me that I had disappointed her–that I had become a pock mark on the family. She was hurt. She wanted me to GRIEVE FOR HER. She wanted me to console her. She wanted me and everyone else to feel sorry for her. She was in no position or condition to provide me with the support or acceptance that I so desperately craved and needed. And it was with that memory that I finally got those lyrics. I finally understood them and view them as indescribably tragic. Painfully tragic.
On my first couple of listens I felt that Brandi did not pack the vocal track with enough emotional wallop. It seemed lacking in some way. Where was the heartache? Where was the pain? But, then I shifted my view on this matter–and realized that the pain was there… you CAN hear it in her voice–it’s a deeply embedded sadness. It’s that stunned, emotionless, immense disappointment that is so far beyond anger and the forced superficiality of tears and whining. It’s a more numbing dull feeling that is communicated just beautifully here. Just listen and you’ll hear it, too.
Oh and PS. The addition of the piano to the verses–bangarang. Great choice. It adds so much by using so little.
HOWEVER, I can’t be quite so forgiving on the track titled “I Will.” Sigh. This is perhaps the most epic letdown of the album for me, personally. I had heard this song performed once previously–and fell instantly in love. The best part of “I Will” was always the lyrics. God damn I feel those bitches deep within my bones. It’s one of those songs that I believe to be almost TOO personal to share with us. It’s deep. It’s candid. It’s very honest. It’s very very honest, in fact. Ha. If I had inspired this song–I’d be almost upset that she had opened her heart up THIS MUCH to the world–and with such permanency. After the record is completed–there is no changing it. It is what it is–now and forever. And those feelings and emotions will always be captured in one format or another. You can’t escape it.
But it was because of that very intimacy–the exposure of the underbelly of what we perceive to be golden, shiny and perfect in Brandi’s life as anything but. She experiences the devastation of relationships and the crippling dissolution of love just like the rest of us. She’s got some depth to her that one does.
And the original incarnation of this song expressed that authentic anguish that I desperately miss in the studio release. Whereas in the original you could hear the grief and the woe emanating from her voice–she sounds despondent at times, angry at times, completely emotionally drained at others. When she wails out that bridge, she rattles the insides of everyone in the crowd with her exasperated passion. You really get a sense of what she’s experiencing–reluctant acceptance with a side of resentment. She sings it like she means it. And the accompanying instrumentation did nothing to detract from this.
So, naturally I was beyond excited to hear how it came out on the album. And, well. Meh. I still like it, of course. But, it DEFINITELY lacks the emotion of the live version. There is no question. And I’m not qualified to make this assumption–but she sounds almost…vapid? Spiritless? Bland? If I were critiquing this in a scholarly way I would give her the benefit of the doubt and make a case for her vocals being delivered in this way because clearly she was singing from a state of desolation–of exhaustion–of hollowness. Literally devoid of any passion or ability to feel–because boy if we don’t know how love can do that to us!
But, I am not sure if that was the point–because the music is so upbeat and almost…cheerful sounding? The musical arrangement is bright and happy, with quasi-boring vocals and heart-wrenching lyrics. It’s just a confusing song. Like if I just heard the instrumental arrangement I’d think I was in a Disney musical or romantic comedy–but if I read the lyrics I’d think I was reading a Sylvia Plath poem. Sweet and sour don’t always mix. I’m blaming this one on her dislike of studio recording and her lack of performing in front of an audience. Yeah, I’m making excuses. Whatev.
And I was really looking forward to it being awesome.
I will say, however, that the twins (Tim and Phil) really do add to the song with vocal contributions. They provide the perfect backdrop to the moments where Brandi DOES inject some life into the singing. They sound ALMOST creepy, but in a hauntingly beautiful… perfect kinda way.
The twins are just kick ass in general. They have matured beautifully in the past couple of years–they have pushed themselves in terms of musical growth. With their instrumental skills and their ability to harmonize–I would go so far as to say that they are completely indispensable to Brandi…as is the cellist, Josh Neumann. They are a little family–close knit–and almost eerily connected both in the studio and on stage.
Tim’s guitar work on Before it Breaks is fucking ridiculous. It takes an already amazing song (my favorite on the record) and makes it one of the best I’ve ever heard. Overstatement? No. It’s not. And it doesn’t stop there–the rootsy acoustic feel of “Dying Days,” “Touching the Ground” and “If There Was No You” is so beautifully addicting–and it could not have been composed any better. Shout out to Phil’s bass work and Josh’s cello on this particular song as well. Every instrument is highlighted here. They brought out the big guns on this one! And those vintage instruments utilized seem so fucking REAL and authentic. I mean, it’s exactly how these songs SHOULD sound. So genuine. Just the imagery of weathered arch back guitars, strings dusty and worn with years of play, hollow sound hole frayed, frets discolored from use, pick guards tarnished and missing their initial sheen. Dirty, gritty and bordering on unrefined–but then you hear that voice. While her voice may be “imperfect” by traditional standards, it is nothing if not bell clear and goddamn beautifully versatile.
She expresses that multi-faceted nature of her voice in songs like “That Year” and “Oh Dear,” where she branches out of her natural deep throaty intonations into a more angelic soft and delicate falsetto. I’m not sure if she wanted to prove her diversity as a singer, or if she felt that those pitches were best suited for the particular songs–but either way, we get it Brandi you are a BAMF! If you go back to her earliest recordings and compare them to now–you will be SHOCKEDAMAZEDASTOUNDEDAWED by how much she has grown in the vocal department. It’s insane. And now there is nothing I would change. Her voice is what sets her apart from the rest of the female singer-songwriters out there. It’s unique. It is special. And she appears to do it with little or no effort. When I picture Brandi in her private life–I just assume she walks around like she’s in a goddamn musical–sing songing absolutely every thing. I’m pretty sure I’m right.
I prefer her deeper tones, but I have to admit that “That Year” sounds absolutely BEAUTIFUL on the record. Shit. She nailed every note–and it’s the little things that heighten that songs success as a single-worthy entity. It’s the tinge of electric guitar at certain moments throughout this track and the pounding of the piano keys and background vocal work that create this incredibly haunting atmosphere that is just un-fucking-believable.
However, the same fate is not bestowed upon the album’s final track, “Oh Dear.” I’ve never liked this song. I don’t like the twin’s vocals–don’t like Brandi’s–don’t like the use of the ukulele–don’t particularly like the lyrics–although they are certainly the most redeeming factor of this tune. It’s just an anticlimactic way to end the record–and I think despite it’s vintage flair that it just doesn’t work. It may be a technically “good” song, but it doesn’t seem to fit in here and I feel it’s going to be the “Gone,” “Shadow on the Wall” and “Losing Heart” of the previous releases–the one I skip over every single time. Might be for some people–not for me.
Got a few more tracks to touch upon: “Dreams,” “Caroline,” “Touching the Ground” and “If There Was No You.”
All up-beat tracks–all perky and bouncy in tone–if not necessarily in meaning.
“Dreams” is the first single from the new album–and rightly so. It’s not “The Story,” but it is a FUN song. And it’s very very catchy and poppy–in a good way. I constantly want to jump around and dance to it–routinely playing air guitar along with Tim and Brandi during the musical interlude. And the song is about sex–so that’s cool. Ha! They played this song for the first time in Austin when they opened for the Indigo Girls. It was a hot hot sweaty outdoor show–and I was rushing through the crowd, pushing through a mass quantity of angry lesbians as I kept cutting my way through them trying to find the front of the stage–when they started playing this song… “188.8.131.52.3.4…Dreams, I have dreams…” My girlfriend and I knew immediately that this was gonna be a good one. And over a year later we still harbor the same opinion for this track. It’s just infectious–Beatles-esque at times–full of energy… and it REALLY showcases Brandi’s scream to the fullest. And that’s totally a good thing. I love it when she sing screams. God, I love it.
I support this choice of single and I can’t wait to see the video for it.
Caroline is the biggest surprise of “Give Up the Ghost” for me. I never really fell head over heels for the live version of this song. I thought there was a shit-ton of wasted lyrical brilliance here. It’s a sweet cutesie song that Brandi wrote about her little baby niece of the same name. I like to pretend it was about a love interest–because honestly I’m not kid-crazy. I don’t get it. I’m going to be an aunt soon (December 25th! so soon!) and I hope to god that I can be this devoted and into my niece as Brandi apparently is.
It’s a catchy little song though–and some of the lyrics
“I have seen the canyon lands, crooked lines like in your hands, you’d swear the earth was split in two, I wouldn’t lie I promise you that…”
“they’ve built towers to the sky, it hurts sometimes to watch them try, they run themselves into the ground, but I know you will love them, city lights and city sounds there is beauty in the struggle”
Those are are effing brilliant. Seriously. In all honestly I think they should have been saved for a better song. But, I’m probably in the minority with that opinion.
What really saved this song for me was the addition of Elton John’s killah piano licks. Dayum mayn. He sure does kick ass. Yes he does. He turned this song into a ragtime americana tinged tune–syncopated, rhymatic, and dance-worthy. It’s such a throwback number. I love it. He also adds his vocals to this one, which I was not blown away by. In fact, had I not known that it was Sir Elton–I probably wouldn’t have been able to identify him!
The other positive sweet song on the album would have to be “If There Was No You,” which I have quoted to my girlfriend numerous times. “If you were my boat in the deep blue sea, I’d probably sink you down, I know I should have thanked you for carrying me, but for you I would happily drown.” Sigh. Hits kinda close to home for Em and I, but at the end of the day it’s a lovely romantic-ish ballad that I bet Brandi struggled to write. She so frequently scribes from such a dark dark place that scouring her psyche for lyrical inspiration in the happiness vein was probably extremely taxing. I know it would be for me. And Brandi and I are vest sisters after all. I get it, Brandi. Heh.
And finally… “Touching the Ground.” It seemed to me at first that this selection was a bit of a throwaway filler track. I know that’s awful to insinuate, but that’s just how I viewed it. It appeared to be rather mundane; nothing new or inspiring about it–just a few chords, a simple melody, uncomplicated verses, etc. etc.
But, ya know what? I really dig the album version. I do. I love how when you listen with headphones the guitar comes through in one ear and the vocals are in the other. It’s an interesting and appreciated element of the song. And yeah, the lyrics aren’t groundbreaking, but they do resonate with the listener. They are at once introspective, while still being simplistic. And there ain’t no problem with that.
There are still an inordinate amount of flourishes and minor details to appreciate in repeated listens. Small things. But, ones that make the record whole and complete. And can I just say how much I dig the drums?
So, that about wraps up the mega monolithic super duper fun time extraordinaire review with bonus features. Trust me, I will never again take on such a blogging project again. But, this album is important to me–and I know it is important to more than a few of you guys probably reading this. Brandi has had a significant impact on my life and I say that with no hesitation or hint of shame. It is what it is. I credit her for granting me the confidence to come out, to conquer my fears and start playing the guitar and singing for friends and family, and for introducing me to a shit ton of new friends (Check out Again Today and meet more amazing Brandi fans) and music. And perhaps most importantly, for bringing my girlfriend and I together.
It’s more than just music to me.
And while this album is not perfect. It’s not. There is always room to grow and develop–and things that I think fall a little short on this final cut–but it’s pretty damn good. At times it is AMAZING in its brilliance. It’s my favorite, by far of her records. But, I also don’t think Brandi and the boys expected this record to be perfect. I know that they have more up their sleeves. And they are still young. They are going to make more albums that change the way we listen to music. They will keep providing us with relatable tunes that are both emotionally packed and easy to jam too. Those of us who know about the Brandi Carlile Band know that they are special–know that they have more to offer than the average band–and for a little while longer they are our secret…our treasure to covet…and our discovery to share with the world.
Rock on, guys.
Posted on October 1, 2009, in The coolest shit evah. and tagged Amy Ray, Brandi Carlile, elton john, Give Up the Ghost, Indigo Girls, Josh Neumann, Phil Hanseroth, The Story, Tim Hanseroth. Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.