While fawning over Brandi Carlile as she mesmerized and melted a packed crowd to the core in Detroit nearly two years ago, I knew the Seattle-born musician crafted one of the best songs of her then dual-album career: “Dying Day,” a lingering love-you-miss-you lament that she sang without a mic.
Carlile didn’t need it: Her belty alto tore through it, bellowing from the bottom of her heart and gut, like she so effortlessly does. I had chills. Arm hairs were up. I wrestled a couple tears.
No non-YouTubers knew the song, but by the final chorus – when her muscular howl was the only instrument thrusting it toward us – people were lipping it, myself included. She’d be crazy not to record this, I thought. She’s not crazy.
The soulful song that sounds apropos for a campfire sing-along made the cut for her latest LP, “Give Up the Ghost,” out Oct. 6 – following a preview at 8 p.m. Sept. 26 at the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor. Even in its recorded version, “Dying Day,” now licked with slide guitar accents and achy cello strings, retains its intimacy. It’s a testament to the strikingly underproduced quality of the album and the inimitable power of Carlile’s voice, which reaches out, snatches your heart and grips it even after the last note sounds.
Especially achieving that is dream-inspired “That Year,” another sad song she premiered at the same show (during which I didn’t even bother restraining my misty eyes; I just let it go). Over a simple guitar melody, a quiet, restrained Carlile finds peace with a friend’s suicide, finally letting go of the pent-up, decade-long anger – hauntingly punctuating the song with “I was a Baptist/I was wrong” – that she felt following it.
Elsewhere on “Ghost,” her third – and most candid – album following 2007’s guitar-driven “The Story,” she does wistfully dreamy (“Oh Dear”), moody arena rock (“Before It Breaks”) and whistle-laced love songs (“If There Was No You”), enacting a more self-assured exploratory approach in her expandable delivery and, sometimes, in the music itself. On “Dreams,” she carries that callow edge over from “The Story,” where she traded the glossier folk-pop from her 2005 eponymous debut, on which even then her old-soul voice belied her actual 20-something age, for beautifully cracked, throaty-voiced rock/roots music.
“Before It Breaks” is a kind of Coldplay, piano-building ballad – haunting, hurting and a vocal show-stopper, as Carlile’s pliant instrument effortlessly whips back and forth between a meaty growl and a vulnerable, porcelain-like falsetto with the ease of a rubberband and the control of a teenager’s mom. When she opens her mouth to sing, everything around it opens, too. It’s a weapon of mass destruction, catapulting into riptides of raw energy and, especially on “Before It Breaks,” complimented hauntingly well by The Twins – longtime bandmates Tim and Phil Hanseroth, who get a lot of play on this record. Happily so.
“Caroline,” with its jubilant country sweeter-than-lemonade charm and Elton John’s harmonies, has her gushing over a girl … her niece (Carlile came out to her college newspaper in 2002, but has since to speak of it). Indigo Girls Amy Ray offers back-up on “Looking Out,” an impassioned, soaring rocker which, along with the world-weary “Pride and Joy,” features some of Carlile’s best writing to date: “I laid a suitcase on my chest, so I could feel somebody’s weight/And not lay you to rest, just to feel the give and take.”
Carlile’s voice here packs the force of a head-on collision, especially as the gritty, tension-building bridge – where she begins belting the shit out of the song – swoops up into a typhoon of electric guitar and drums. It’s a moving moment, and they’re everywhere on “Give Up the Ghost,” a career best – and favorite this year – that unquestionably furthers her as a class-act vocal genius and a crafty, evolving songwriter. And now, with more of her guard down, as transparent as a ghost.
‘The Give Up the Ghost Traveling Show’
7:30 p.m. Sept. 28
Michigan Theater, Ann Arbor
Also: See Brandi perform before her Michigan Theater gig at 12:30 p.m. at the Borders on Liberty Street in Ann Arbor.