I know, I know, I'm just as shocked as you are to be listening to a new Vanessa Carlton CD, much less heaping such copious amounts of praise upon Carlton's fifth studio album, Liberman. Maybe it was just the coffee talking or my brain's response to attempting to make it through an entire Lana Del Rey album and failing miserably.
For as "on her game" as Del Rey may be, the lack of sonic and tonal variety from song to song almost makes me think they should issue each new Del Rey album with a warning not to operate heavy machinery whilst listening. Even so, her success has had a sort of Nirvana-esque influence on her peers. While Carlton was a known entity long before Del Rey landed on the scene, her career has taken an odd trajectory in the wake of her 2002 breakthrough hit "A Thousand Miles".
2004's Harmonium, the follow-up to the platinum Be Not Nobody, was produced and largely co-written by then boyfriend and Third Eye Blind frontman Stephan Jenkins. The result was an ambitious, but stylistically conflicted effort that spawned no hits and ultimately led Carlton to part ways with A&M Records.
However misunderstood she may have been by A&M execs was nothing compared to being the token non-hip hop act on rap mogul Irv Gotti's The Inc. label. The resulting album, Heroes And Thieves, failed to dent the Top 40 and led to yet another hasty label exit.
Four long years later, Carlton inked a deal with Razor & Tie (known at the time primarily as a reissues label) for the release of her fourth album, Rabbit On The Run, but Razor & Tie's marketing limitations all but insured the album would remain a well-kept secret to all but her die-hard fans, which is a damn shame because of the scope and determination Carlton put into creating an album that wasn't just another assembly-line pop product.
Soonafter, Carlton began dabbling in film and TV scoring - a smart move for an esoteric artist in her thirties in an industry driven more and more by immediate gratification and here today, gone later today pop sensations. At one point, Carlton opined that she might never make another solo album.
Thankfully, that has turned out to not be the case, as Carlton's Liberman is not just a return to active duty, but the best damn thing she has ever done. While she may have hinted at a similar style on 2011's Rabbits On The Run, Carlton really ramps up the evocative, smoky, cabaret imagery and creates an album that, on the surface, is quite similar to Del Rey's latest platter.
However, with a little more exuberance and a reliance on more upbeat tempos than Del Rey employs, Carlton creates an album that can be safely listened to while driving that forklift or locomotive. Lead-off cut "Take It Easy" creates an almost trance-like vibe awakened by Carlton's ethereal vocals and a plaintive piano that tugs at the heart in exhilarating fashion. "Willows" employs the same sonic formula, but Carlton's vocal is a real stunner here, evoking both Kate Bush and Tori Amos without it falling into mere imitation.
The true standout on the album is the elegiac "Unlock The Lock", which answers the musical question "What would it sound like if Enya covered 'Polly" by Nirvana?" This, of course, is to describe a wildly beautiful song in the most basic of terms in hopes of getting someone who might not have otherwise been inclined to listen to a new Vanessa Carlton tune.
Those who do listen will be justly rewarded by an album chock-full of great hooks, clever lyrics, and a cavalcade of sonic subtleties and nuances that continue to reveal themselves on repeated listens.
Vanessa Carlton is scheduled to appear at City Winery on November 10th. Tickets for this show are SOLD-OUT!
BUT WAIT, that doesn't mean you can't still catch her on November 11th at Evanston's SPACE, for which tickets are still available (thanks Teresa R. for the info!)