Perhaps the only thing working against Brandi Carlile’s commercial prospects is her timing: A decade ago, her brand of polished singer-songwriter rock would have found a wide audience with the post-Lilith Fair market that supported artists like Susan Tedeschi, Sheryl Crow, and even more pop-leaning acts like Michelle Branch and Avril Lavigne. But when pitted against Lady GaGa and Taylor Swift, Carlile sounds like something of a throwback on her third album Give Up the Ghost. Producer Rick Rubin is more in tune with Carlile’s gifts than of those of the Gossip, whose Music for Men he botched; here, he brings occasional roots-rock and country flourishes to Carlile’s workman-like songs. And tracks like “Pride and Joy,” “Touching the Ground,” and “Before It Breaks” need that added texture to make them more interesting. Carlile may have a rich, versatile singing voice (she pulls off the melancholy on “Dying Day” and belts the hell out of the forceful “Dreams”), but she hasn’t yet developed a truly distinctive voice as a songwriter. Though she has a good ear for melody, songs like “That Year” and “Pride and Joy” hinge on rather pedestrian turns of phrase and images. But it’s her dynamic performances and some inspired collaborators who understand her strengths—in addition to Rubin, Elton John livens up “Caroline” with some rollicking, ragtime-y piano licks—that make Carlile’s Ghost a worthwhile effort.
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