No wonder Brandi Carlile’s always releasing live music – her big, bellowy voice is best heard outside the studio, in all its rawness. This time it’s with the Seattle Symphony, which complements the crescendos of songs from the folk-rock musician’s magnificent catalog. Most of them are pulled from her latest album, Give Up the Ghost, with a staggering seven-minute “Pride and Joy” that kicks into a string-fueled, sound-flooded rocker, and the lovely “Before it Breaks,” which follows its original piano-launched blueprint until there’s an even more epic midway blast – with horns and woodwinds – that surges into an explosive powerhouse. Her biggest hit, “The Story,” follows similarly with its end wallop, but especially setting it apart from the studio song is Carlile’s unrefined onstage interpretation – like her up-and-down-and-sideways voice is running through a grater. She nails it. “Turpentine” is turned into a three-part-harmony sing-along with Tim and Phil Hanseroth, her bandmates, before they take the spotlight themselves on “The Sound of Silence,” and completely steal it. Carlile wraps majestically with two stirring covers, “Hallelujah” and a show-stopping “Forever Young,” dropping the 30-piece orchestra for just a piano. The real weapon, after all, is that voice.
Let’s just pretend this is Augustana’s debut. After all, like most firsts, it’s named after the band. And considering the mediocrity of their two previous LPs, the boys might not mind starting over. Now unrecognizable as the dreamy piano-pop group – except that they still sing about love woes and new beginnings – this is practically a new formation. Even frontman Dan Layus sounds like he hit a second puberty, with a rasp that’s more Bruce Springsteen than pre-pubescent boy channeling a poor man’s Coldplay. Augustana is better for it. “Shot in the Dark” is a bouncy boost of optimism whose positivity is infectious; it’s a single The Killers would kill for, and one of the best songs you’ll hear this year. The rest of the seamless 10-track album, even if the songs don’t reach the same feel-goodness, is nearly just as solid. “Wrong Side of Love” is a radio-ready rocker; and “On the Other Side” is the band’s new “Boston” (their biggest hit), another power ballad that swells like a balloon. They go completely Americana on “Borrowed Time,” a sweet little soft spot. So of course they named Augustana after themselves – who wouldn’t want to be remembered for this one?
Stevie Nicks, In Your Dreams
One day Stevie Nicks might finally catch up to the times, but till then we have In Your Dreams, a divine throwback to her Fleetwood Mac days that captures the essence of the mystical music-maker. Early-’90s nostalgics will find pleasure on “Secret Love,” which casts a dreamy blend of storytelling and light-rock reverie. There’s a simple sweetness to road song “For What It’s Worth,” and a great hook on the title track, an old-school rocker. Even the weaker material, like a corny love song called “Cheaper than Free” with producer Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics, doesn’t totally bomb at the helm of Nicks’ enchanting voice. Dreams was worth a decade of waiting.
Yelle, Safari Disco Club
You don’t need to know French to get a sucked into the joyful dance world of Yelle, producers of dance-pop that charm again on this follow up to 2007’s Pop Up. Their sophomore CD is enveloping with its rich, buoyant melodies and effervescent style of electro-framed disco dancers. Many of the songs are chic, bubbly, lo-fi bait (even if they’re sad) – think chimes, handclaps and slick synths – sung in Julie Budet’s chirpy sing-speak. The cohesiveness blurs individuality among tracks, but the best ones – the eerie “La Musique” and the seemingly happy-go-lucky “C’est Pas Une Vie”– break all language barriers.