The former pop princess finds a home at the strangest label yet, and creates her best album ever.
Vanessa Carlton has had quite the uneven run in the music industry. At the age of 22, she was signed to a major label, had the No. 1 song in the country (the completely-inescapable-in-2002 "A Thousand Miles"), and a platinum album, Be Not Nobody, which soared on the strength of meticulously produced, piano-driven pop songs. But two disappointing (commercially and stylistically) albums, two label changes, and two years in seclusion later, and Carlton's search for a suitable home and fertile artistic ground seemed to have come to a close.
In 2011, Carlton signed with Razor & Tie (the marketing geniuses behind the Kidz Bop series) and recorded a new album, Rabbits on the Run, which represents a significant departure from her pop radio roots. With Rabbits, Carlton says her focus was not to churn out hits but to "build a really cool cabin -- a place I want to drink whiskey in and hang out until the sun rises". To do this, she retired to Peter Gabriel's Real World Studios in England and wrote a set of 10 intimate, collaborative songs, recording direct to tape and letting the tracks breathe a life of their own.
This holistic approach to recording has produced an album profoundly different from Carlton's earlier work. With its airy spaces and simple structures, Rabbits has more in sonic relation with recent releases by Jesca Hoop and Jill Sobule than fellow former-popster Michelle Branch, or anyone else in the mainstream. Rabbits features a children's choir, tambourines, and vocals unburdened by digital enhancement, all representing a bold and deeply satisfying change of direction for Carlton.
Steve Osborne (Doves, KT Tunstall) took the helm on this project, and there's a whimsical, folksy influence on display that was absent from 2007's Irv Gotti-financed, Stephan Jenkins-produced Heroes & Thieves. The empty spaces that inhabit tracks like "London" and "Hear the Bells" are as far removed from the busy, polished songs Carlton once made for mainstream radio as a rocking horse is from a bullet train.
Carlton has grown as a lyricist, too, turning in songs as economical as they are detailed. "I Don't Want to Be a Bride" and "Fairweather Friend" are devastatingly beautiful, and "Dear California" is the song that Jenny Lewis has been trying to write for years ("As usual I'm in a tricky predicament / Weathering my thoughts on the roof, sneaking a cigarette"-- How is that not a Jenny & Johnny line?). The courage to both dig deep lyrically and back off the production plays to Carlton's strengths, resulting in probably the strongest seven-song stretch in her entire catalog, beginning with "I Don't Want to Be a Bride".
Of course, not every song is a direct hit. Lead single "Carousel" might be the weakest song on the album with its cliched imagery and confusing vocal multi-tracking. I would balk at its placement at the front of the album, but I actually think this works to the benefit of Rabbits. It's a clearing of the throat, so to speak -- a nod toward Carlton's pop-oriented past which gives way immediately to the album's meaty middle, which is sure to please longtime fans and convert any skeptics.
Rabbits on the Run is a deeply satisfying 37-minute romp that will make you remember why you really liked Vanessa Carlton once upon a time. And don't lie. You did. A lot of people will say this is Carlton's best album since Be Not Nobody, but I say this is her best album ever.