Brandi Carlile’s third full-length album, Give Up the Ghost, opens with a single strum and then the cuffed chugging of her acoustic guitar as the 28-year-old Seattle native starts singing in her warm alto. The song, “Looking Out”, builds to a soaring pre-chorus that shows off Carlile’s remarkable power and range. The band comes crashing in—including writing and touring partners, and twin brothers, Tim and Phil Hanseroth, on guitar and bass, respectively, who are joined in the studio by Chad Smith of the Red Hot Chili Peppers on drums and Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls on harmony vocals—and the song reaches impressive heights. The acoustic guitar is up front here, as it is throughout the album, but this is a rock song with walloping drums and Carlile’s strident singing, continuing the sort of passionate hard folk with which Carlile won fans over on the title cut to 2007’s The Story.
That record, her sophomore release on Columbia, was produced by T-Bone Burnett, and true to his signature style, The Story was mostly a toned-down affair, full of Burnett’s elegant but somber touch and quiet contemplative songs. Give Up the Ghost is a bigger album—not exactly heavy by modern rock standards, but certainly a more expansive sonic template, with harder singing and playing than its predecessor. I’m not sure there’s anything here as passionate as “The Story” or as lovely as “Turpentine” or as authentically country as “Josephine”, but Give Up the Ghost sounds terrific, nonetheless, and contains moments of sharp, joyous songwriting.
Who shall share some of the credit for the new sound and direction? Why Rick Rubin, that taste-maker extraordinaire himself, the record’s producer. Rubin’s new strategy, among other endeavors, seems to be, after shaping excellent comeback albums for other Americana or country acts like Johnny Cash and the Dixie Chicks, to find talented folk-rock acts with cult followings but who’ve yet to break huge, and to produce them into the mainstream big leagues. Out now is the Rubin-produced major-label debut by the Avett Brothers, featuring a lush, polished makeover. Rubin gives Carlile a similar treatment on Give Up the Ghost, broadening the palette, yes, but also nurturing the best of Carlile’s writing instincts, a process that Burnett started. One of Rubin’s greatest contributions is keeping things from getting overly gimmicky and avoiding futzy production flourishes. Instead, the focus is on relatively simple arrangements and restrained instrumentation. The result is a winning collection of graceful, engaging music.
The star of the show here, though, is really Carlile’s voice. Anyone who has caught her in concert knows that she is a singer of arresting skill, with a gorgeous tone and impeccable control. It’s tough to capture that full range of vulnerability and power in the studio, but Give Up the Ghost is still a convincing document of her talents. At times her voice floats up to an ethereal falsetto, as on “I Will”, a beauty of brush strokes and fingerpicking. On other songs, like the hard-strumming lead single “Dreams”, Carlile pushes harder, mining the silver at the top of her headvoice. And have you heard? Elton John shows up. Although if you didn’t read it in the liner notes, you’d never know it. He plays a pizza-parlor piano ride intro/outro on “Caroline”, a fun little tune, and sings the second verse, but he takes the melody beneath Carlile’s harmony, which puts him into such a low register that he’s nearly growling unrecognizably.
Not everything works here perfectly, and while the songs are consistently strong, there’s no absolute knockout. Carlile’s lyrics, while they avoid being conspicuously contrived, aren’t particularly memorable, either, and they sometimes default to commonplace couplets like, “How I miss you and I just want to kiss you” from “Dying Day”. And while “Pride and Joy”, with strings arranged by legendary Elton John collaborator Paul Buckmaster, probably has legs as the album’s big beautiful ballad, it’s the kind of lofty, repetitive chorus you’ve heard in a hundred other songs, and has more in common with Sarah McLachlan than Carlile deserves. A better ballad is “Before It Breaks”; it’s a lacy heartbreaker, but it’s tougher, with epic guitars and drums.
The record ends with a couple of quiet songs, the unadorned “Touching the Ground”, featuring the album’s most laid-back vocal delivery, and “Oh Dear”, a dreamy ukelele-based tune with Beatlesque backing vocals. It’s an appropriately fine ending to Carlile’s third very strong album in a row. Give Up the Ghost is evidence that not only is she one of the best singers in modern folk-rock music, but that she can write a potent set of songs every time out.