Earlier Things, while not quite as captivating and mysterious as Liberman Live, shows that Carlton is a strong musician, even in the stripped-down format.
In my review of Liberman Live, I noted it was a shame that Vanessa Carlton didn’t include the other cuts from her tour that weren’t off of her fifth studio album Liberman. Well, you can now rest assured, as Carlton has decided to release most of the other songs played on a new live EP titled Earlier Things. If anyone still wanted a full-length live album, I’m sure it wouldn’t be too difficult to find a set list from this tour online and make a playlist accordingly—but I digress.
The obvious contrast between the songs on Liberman Live and Earlier Things is that, despite being played on the same tour with the same live setup of Carlton and Skye Steele, the non-Liberman tracks are considerably stripped down to just piano, vocal, and violin. This is fine, however, as it creates a nice, intimate experience, and with this live collection being well mixed like its sister album, the listener has one of the best seats in the house.
One of the special treats of this collection is getting to hear some of the extra musical add-ons we don’t get on studio counterparts. For instance, tacking on Tom Petty’s “Learning to Fly” as the intro for “Carousel” is a charming addition and tribute for Carlton to showcase songs and musicians she admires. Also on “White Houses,” the additional musical interlude at the start feels like an emotional prequel to the story the song is going tell. Here in its stripped-down format on the Fender Rhodes, “White Houses” packs a dreamy emotional punch that feels like a bittersweet reminiscing of a summer long gone.
“Hear the Bells” is the only song on this collection that uses percussion, and has the most layering that ties this collection to the songs off Liberman Live. Its live interpretation here isn’t quite as atmospheric or dreamy as its studio counterpart, but it still sounds cool and much more driving due to the more prominent beat as compared to the studio recording. While the arrangement for “Hear the Bells” live is a little barer than its album version, something about it is still haunting, and the looped elements of it live feel a little trippy.
Another special treat on Earlier Things is the husband-and-wife duet of Deer Tick’s “In Our Time.” Carlton and husband John McCauley’s performance feels both emotional and lighthearted, with Steele happily playing violin to the two of them. It’s humorous to hear the couple say “I’ll see you at home” at the end of the song, and ties the overall performance into a charming number that’ll put a smile on your face.
The live performance of “A Thousand Miles,” which was included on the iTunes version of Liberman Live, is here, too. The song still shines with its simple and intimate piano, violin, and vocal arrangement, as compared to the studio album’s catchy, but at times overproduced and streamlined, full band and orchestral production.
Earlier Things closes out with “Marching Line.” The song, while starting out with mysterious ambience, quickly goes back into the stripped-down format of the majority of the EP. Carlton’s performance of “Marching Line” closes out the EP beautifully; however, it can’t be ignored on this track that there are people whispering nearby. One can’t help but wonder how these people have the nerve to talk through such an intimate performance.
Overall, Earlier Things, while not quite as captivating and mysterious as Liberman Live, shows that Carlton is a strong musician, even in the stripped-down format. While it doesn’t seem like Carlton is necessarily abandoning her roots or her previous hits, with the names of the two sister albums, one can only hope it means she intends to keep moving forward.
Don’t get me wrong: Carlton rocks being the girl on piano, and it’ll be nice to keep hearing stripped-down performances from her here and there. However, Carlton shines brightest when she starts exploring soundscapes, and when she invites other musicians into the fold to explore those possibilities with her. B | Michael Cheng