When: Mon., Dec. 14, 8 p.m. 2015
MONDAY, DEC. 14
CAROLINA THEATRE, DURHAM—Vanessa Carlton is proof that producing a hit can become a problem. In 2002, Carlton—then, a piano-playing singer-songwriter barely old enough to buy a drink—overcame a series of label woes and false starts to climb the charts on the strength of "A Thousand Miles," an emotionally jejune love letter with a hook that was nevertheless instant. The song made her debut, Be Not Nobody, a hit and pushed her into big support slots, headlining tours and into the status of a sudden, supposed FM dial starlet.
But Cartlon bristled at the trajectory and worked to become more than a singer of mere love songs. Using major-label studio money, she assembled a staggering team to assist a turn away from the simplistic, lovelorn fare that had started to make her famous. She led her second album, Harmonium, with "White Houses," a smart, aggressive anthem about anorexia, virginal blood and the discomforts of adolescent attraction. That record, like her next and final LP for a major label, slid from the charts almost as soon as it could nab a spot, forcing Carlton into indie exile for 2011's Rabbits on the Run. Carlton was still working squarely within the pop idiom, but her later records always approached big, sensitive topics with aplomb and inquisitiveness. Still, during an especially uncertain era for the music industry, her semi-star past prevented much movement. Why would a major label try to reinvent her, and why would indie rock listeners want an FM-radio has-been?
But this year's Liberman, Carlton's first record in four years, represents something of a hard reset. Now in her mid-30s and the married mother of two, Carlton seems at ease and wise during these 10 terrific songs. She treats lost love like a passing lunar phase during "Blue Pool," and addresses the quest for adult stability like a perilous but perennially captivating adventure during "River." And working with a small production team in England and Nashville, Carlton takes care not too make these songs do too much. She finds a comfortable intersection of folk, pop and light rock and animates it with her patient voice, which is softer and less insistent than it used to be. "When is it time to let go? Is it then that you know?" she sings during "Matter of Time," a little acoustic jewel in the album's back half. Against most odds, 13 years after "A Thousand Miles" came and went, Liberman offers a reason to know Carlton all over again. With Joshua Hyslop. 8 p.m., $28–$63.80, 309 W. Morgan St., Durham, 919-560-3030, www.carolinatheatre.org. —Grayson Haver Currin