The cover of Brandi Carlile’s Red Ink/Columbia album (her major-label debut after two self-released albums) is a bit of a tease. The 23-year-old singer-songwriter (who looks much younger) from rural Washington stares down the camera, challenging you to look, while she slightly cocks her hip, hooking her thumbs in her belt loops, one hand pushing aside her khaki boy scout shirt to expose the barest triangle of midriff. It’s a provocative image, if a little too posed, and not representative of the album’s folk-rock charms. It’s also miles away from the performer who took the Troubadour stage Monday night.
Live, Carlile presents herself in a bluntly straightforward manner. Backed by her longtime collaborators Tim and Phil Hanseroth (referred to as “The Twins”) on guitar and bass respectively, cellist Josh Neuman and a new drummer introduced only as Coach, the music was refreshingly unfussy. The cello was used sparingly, mostly for texture, but played a lovely counterpoint to the melody on “Someday Never Comes.”
The band propped up some of her more conventional folk songs, turning “Closer to You” into a swaying sing-along. Carlisle’s expressive voice is huskier live than on record, at times sounding like a lighter version of Melissa Etheridge — but when she reaches the top of her range, as on her set-ending cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” the effect is stunning, as vulnerable and affecting as Jeff Buckley’s version.
Regardless of the setting, Carlile is an impressive songwriter. “Follow” and “Throw It all Away” have the odd intervals and arching beauty of “The Bends”-era Thom Yorke, but she eschews Radiohead’s bitterness, replacing it with a kind rainy-day melancholy. For such a young performer, Carlile feels surprisingly poised and mature, and certainly doesn’t need to be tarted up into an Abercrombie & Fitch ad.
Carlile plays Gotham’s Mercury Lounge Feb. 13.