Album Reviews

Vanessa Carlton – Liberman

(Dine Alone/Caroline International) UK release date: 29 April 2016

Vanessa Carlton - Liberman Among 2002’s chart newcomers – the Pop Idol finalists, Nickelback‘s lumpen grunge-lite AOR and the whatever-the-hell-that-was of Las Ketchup – classically trained pianist and singer-songwriter Vanessa Carlton’s first single A Thousand Miles still charms.

Channelling the millennial angst of the contemporary Complicated, its grand, prettily tumbling arpeggios hinting at Tori Amos, it was a huge hit for the then 21-year-old Pennsylvanian.

Debut album Be Not Nobody followed shortly afterwards. In the same widescreen soft-pop vein, with a little more of Fiona Apple‘s tenderness-with-teeth, it tended a little too often towards the overwrought, but was another success. The dark, heartfelt Harmonium (2004) failed to find an audience, though, and Carlton found herself without a label.

Picked up by Irv Gotti’s (Murder) Inc., Carlton released third album Heroes & Thieves in 2007. Despite the hip-hop label, this was no dramatic change of direction – pleasant enough, her voice sweeter than before, aloft on the same washes of piano – but it performed even more poorly than its predecessor. Five years on, Carlton seemed further than ever from recapturing anything like the success of her debut hit.

Happily, Carlton’s response was to ignore this, and four years later, after holing up in Peter Gabriel‘s Wiltshire studios, she released the excellent Rabbits On The Run. Her vocals foregrounded, boasting a spacious, folkish production that in places recalls Rilo Kiley, in others Sufjan Stevens‘ layered collisions of hush and grand, sweeping arrangements, its melodies were all the stronger given room to breathe.

Released in the States last October, and returning her to the Billboard top 40 for the first time since 2004, fifth album Liberman, named for and inspired by a painting made by her grandfather, is another shift. Like Rabbits…, it’s still recognisably Carlton but swaps the grand drama of pianos and strings for a different approach.

The warm, enveloping Take It Easy opens, with an almost psychedelic fade-in, a lush bed of synthesisers in place of twinkling pianos and a deep, filtered 4/4 thud. This builds slowly over a minute, and when Carlton sings “I’m old enough to know, too young to let it show,” she sounds tired and wise. The anxious edge of her younger voice has given way to some of the spaced out, wistful timbre of Beach House‘s Victoria Legrand, and it suits the mature, reflective material beautifully.

This electro-folkish dream-pop sound is used to similar effect a few times: the swirling, circular Blue Pool, highlight House Of Seven Swords – her voice sitting in the centre of the spectrum, dripping reverb over minimal bass and 808 clap – and the more urgent, dynamic Operator, where pianos are pushed to the edges of the arrangement by thrumming, insistent bass and beats.

Things come to a head on Nothing Where Something Used To Be, opening the latter half of the short, ten-song album, which Carlton refers to as her “teen break-up anthem,” as if it were her first. Singing in the upper part of her register, Carlton is first regretful (“I didn’t say but I was sad to see you go,”) before admitting, after building to a grand, echoing chorus, that “It was confusing, cause I’m the one who left/It was pre-emptive, I don’t know who I am” – far more mature than her teenage quip would suggest.

The sweetly country-tinged Matter Of Time follows: short and simple, with some lovely harmonies, it wouldn’t sound out of place on a Jenny Lewis album. Only Unlock The Lock falters, a paean to freedom that feels oddly confined, with a structural similarity to Nirvana‘s Polly that’s hard to unhear. But the gorgeous River, set to a picked guitar part, building over stirring toms and electric piano but never quite releasing, and the cavernous, half-remembered dream of the closing Ascension are reminders of just how compelling Liberman is at its best: Carlton sounds freed from any pressure to deliver a follow-up, and a thousand times better for it.

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