Vanessa Carlton | Liberman Live (Dine Alone)

In this setting, Carlton almost comes off as new songwriter just at the beginning of exploring her musical palette.

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For better or for worse, it’s impossible to mention Vanessa Carlton’s name without mentioning her 2002 smash hit “A Thousand Miles.” However, in 2016, Carlton is musically light years away from the streamlined, Top 40 piano-pop that made her a household name in the first place. Across a 14-year career, this is the first live album she’s released. Opting to mostly only include cuts off her last studio album, Liberman, this live album, recorded from her Nashville tour date, might feel better suited as a tag on for a deluxe or expanded edition. Of course, there’s already a deluxe version of Liberman, and it includes live cuts Carlton’s dubbed as the Living Room Sessions. What makes Liberman Live differ is that on the Living Room Sessions, she’s playing completely acoustic on piano and mostly solo. On this live album, we have Carlton here with a backup band, including husband John McCauley from the band Deer Tick, violinist Skye Steele, The Watson Twins, and more.

One of the elements that makes Liberman Live work is the showcasing of maturity in Carlton’s voice that doesn’t always come across on the studio version. For instance, “Blue Pool” has a more youthful-sounding vocal production on the studio version, whereas here she sounds confident and grown up. Carlton’s vocals are also, of course, less affected here than on the studio takes. On the studio album, we find her vocals layered and washed out in reverb, but here Carlton’s voice can’t be layered like that, and while reverb is used, it’s done in smaller doses. Despite this, her raw vocals actually make the songs work better. Songs like “Matter of Time,” “River,” and “Nothing Where Something Used to Be” have more of an emotional impact in this setting.

Another aspect that works so well on this live collection is Steele’s embellishments onto the songs, namely with his violin and collection of effect pedals. His gorgeous strings permeate throughout the nine-song collection, and help create the dreamy, sometimes trippy, atmospheric vibe of Liberman Live. Highlights of Steele’s contribution come in the form of the violin lead on “Matter of Time,” which replaces the guitar lead on the studio version; the trippy effected violin lines in “Take It Easy,” the looped string section in “Nothing Where Something Used to Be,” and the breathtaking looped, layered, and effected improv for the intro of “Willows.” The small details Steele and his violin provide throughout this performance help reinterpret Carlton’s already top-notch songs. On “House of Seven Swords,” Steele’s violin makes the song oddly sound more electronic. After the improv intro for “Willows,” the same electronic-sounding effect is achieved when the acoustic guitar of the studio version is replaced with loops and layers of violin pizzicatos.

While the dynamic between Carlton and Steele works incredibly well, the live band assembled for this specific show shouldn’t be discounted either. The Watson Twins’ beautiful vocals contribute to the dreamy atmosphere in “Operator,” “Willows,” and “Matter of Time,” though they never steal the show from Carlton. McCauley plays acoustic guitar on several songs; and he along with Steele, The Watson Twins, and a backing bassist provide a tight live band for a few tracks. The result is that Carlton sounds like the hottest new indie rock act. In some ways, she should consider reaching out to everyone involved in this show to form an actual band.

Pacing on Liberman Live works a little better than the studio album. Here all the songs feel driving, and when the energy slows down, it doesn’t go into sleepy territory the studio album tends to. The only cut here that isn’t off of Liberman is “A Thousand Miles,” and it’d be a crime if Carlton’s biggest song wasn’t included in this collection. Unlike the version found on her debut album Be Not Nobody, the song here shines in just a stripped-down piano, vocal, and violin format. Of course, the inclusion of “A Thousand Miles” begs the question of where all the other tracks from this show are. Fans who were at the Nashville show where this was recorded will wonder where performances of “Carousel,” “White Houses,” “Home,” “Hear the Bells,” and McCauley and Carlton’s duet of Deer Tick’s “In Our Time” are. Of course, this is Liberman Live, and Carlton likely wanted to highlight the studio album. However, the inclusion of those songs would definitely move this collection of live recordings away from somewhat feeling like a stellar deluxe disc into full-on standalone live album.

Long time Nessaholics (yes, her fanbase call themselves this) of course would also probably love to hear those fan favorites in a well-recorded live setting. That said, Liberman Live is a beautiful and well-done performance, especially noteworthy as live albums from newer artists in the last decade or so generally seem to miss the mark. While Carlton might be a decade in a half into her career, her current material seems more self-recognized than her earlier work. In this setting, Carlton almost comes off as new songwriter just at the beginning of exploring her musical palette, and we can only hope that we hear more great things like this from her in the near future. B+ | Michael Cheng

Key tracks: “Nothing Where Something Used to Be,” “Operator,” “Willows”

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