LIST OF MARY CHAPIN CARPENTER REVIEWS:
Hometown Girl (1987) / State of the Heart (1989) / Shooting Straight in the Dark (1990) / Come On Come On (1992) / Stones in the Road (1994) / A Place in the World (1996) / Party Doll and Other Favorites (1999) / Time* Sex* Love* (2001) / Between Here and Gone (2004)
LIVE CONCERT REVIEW:
Hometown Girl (1987)
Oh man, I used to have a strong distaste for country-western music, and I continue to have trouble with it to this very day. I grew up in Wichita, Kansas, you see, and such music was inescapable. But was I being unfair and crass with it? After all, the only places I ever got really close and intimate contact with it was in truck stop restrooms.
I only bring up this biographical information to demonstrate that if you're an actual country-western fan, you might not want to take my word for much. You and I are too much on different wavelengths. My favorite song here is the title track, which is basically a folk song that has a pretty melody and--the kicker--features an astounding oboe noodling throughout; that instrument completely melts my heart when it's playing among an acoustic guitar.
Not all of these songs are of truck-stop quality, but others are far closer. For instance, there are the two opening songs that I would think are somewhat boringly typical of country-western--they use those two-note bass line, the swaggering pianos from typical bar-bands; one of the lyrics even mention a 'pick-up truck.'
But listen: I don't think I hate country-western anymore. If I put on a few random things by Dolly Parton or Willie Nelson or Randy Travis or Clint Black, I generally think they're fine. (I don't understand why Garth Brooks doesn't make his music available on the Internet. It seems like he's the most famous guy, but for some reason, he doesn't want me to listen to his music. Is he embarrassed about something?) But even in my more enlightened, country-western appreciating state, I don't entirely love the opening two songs only because their melodies tend to wisp out of my mind as soon as they're through playing.
Another not very country-western tune is a ballad called “Come On Home,” which has yet another beautiful melody. Instead of an oboe in the background, it has a thoughtful, pastoral violin and some subtle slide guitars. It's not exactly the stuff that moves my world, but it's pleasant. The lyrics pertain to things about love. And if you can't get enough of those slow songs from her, there's yet another very good one called “Just Because.” It's sung so beautifully and the melody is so pretty that it sinks straight to the center of my heart. Generally it seems she specializes in slow ballads--and there are a lot of them here--but not all of them are so great. “Family Hands” doesn't seem to do much, and the cowboy ballad “Heroes and Heroines” gets a bit heavy handed for my taste. “Waltz” is lumbered down with a clunky beat that almost threatens to drag the song down; however, it's saved with a nice harmonic twist midway through that piques my ears quite well.
“A Road is Just a Road” is a decent pick for the country-western crowd. (She also name-drops that city I used to live in.) It has a catchy melody, some twangy guitars, and a typical country-western beat that can get the ole toe tapping. I suppose I should mention that Carpenter also croons in the typical country-western way, as though her voice was filtered through water, or something. Why do they all sing like that? Is it because it's muggy in the American South and they want to recreate that atmosphere? Carpenter herself is a Yank, though, born in Princeton, New Jersey. Although she was raised in the Washington D.C. area, so I suppose she had all sorts of contact with true 'n' blue Southern folk. Being from Washington D.C., of course, she must've known all about mugginess.
So anyway, this is a mightily decent debut album even though a lot of it is country-western. It's on the weaker spectrum of a 11/15, a rating that's secured solely on the merits of those lovely ballads. As you might have guessed, I'm not culturally drenched with everything Mary Chapin Carpenter, so you'll have to take my reviews solely as the viewpoint from an outsider looking in. But I like looking at things I haven't before; that's why it's fun reviewing sometimes.
State of the Heart (1989)
Not that Mary Chapin Carpenter's debut album was obscure or anything, but her sophomore effort was more aimed for country-radio success. I have no idea if any of these songs made it, but Old Man Wikipedia tells me that it sold far more copies than the debut. However, she was still one album removed from those platinum-selling things she'd release only a year after this, which reportedly had country-western coming out of its ears. I haven't heard these albums yet, because I'm a Mary Chapin Carpenter virgin, and I'm taking her albums one at a time.
For sure, the first four songs are good picks if you want to listen to country-western music, and you still want to keep your self-respect! ...OK, OK, I've listened to The Stones do country-western, and I praised them for doing it, so maybe I should stop pretending I don't like country-western. Even though this album hardly rocks, it's enjoyable. It's like an Eagles record. The only thing 1989 about this album is that some of its ballads are infused with that vibe-keyboard sound, which was all-the-rage in 1989.
The songs in the first half tend to be very short, which suited them. The opening number, “How Do,” is barely more than two minutes long, and it's punchy and a lot of fun; Carpenter gives a playful performance amongst rapidly shuffling drums and frantic guitar solos. It sounds like she's singing a show-tune in Branson, except she's actually being fun without that cheese-eating quality that tortures me like that one time I went to Branson and saw a show.
Right after the showy opening, she gives us a serious ballad: And I like it! It doesn't quite capture me like the folk ballads of her debut did, but she sings it seriously without being overbearing. Most importantly, the hooks are solid especially that chorus, which 'pops' out at me. “Never Had it So Good” is a solid, mid-tempo country-pop number that must have been played on the radio back in the day. I mean, it's just so likable. It doesn't blow my mind or anything, but it has polished instrumentation and yet another solid hook to boot. I'd say the highlight of the whole album is the infectiously upbeat “Read My Lips,” which has a melody that gets stuck in my head, and I can hardly resist tapping my toes with it.
Unfortunately, this album isn't 100% peachy; it's lumbered down with far too many dull ballads. “This Shirt” and “Goodbye Again” never seem to do anything even though they are some of the longest songs of the album. The most damaging of them, I'd say, is the albums closing song, “It Don't Bring You,” a sullen ballad that does nothing for me, and only makes me get off this album thinking I was far more bored than I really was.
So, back to talking about the songs I like. There's “Quittin' Time,” also one of the longer songs, but its melody is catchy and performed with a breezy air. It also has a little--er--jangly guitar at the beginning, almost making me wonder if she pulled a fast one on us and sneaked a jangle-pop tune in here.“Too Tired” is a bright spot of the second half, a two-and-a-half minute ditty that starts out as a breezy acoustic number before adopting an infectious bit of country-western swagger midway through. I can always do with that swagger, whenever I can get it.
I certainly have a few problems with the ballads, but I've nevertheless enjoyed this album the half-dozen or so times I've listened to it. Thus, I feel it duly earns its 11/15.
Shooting Straight in the Dark (1990)
Wow! Mary Chapin Carpenter's third album might be only a minor improvement over her sophomore, but it was improvement enough that it has given me some fond memories. Easily its finest moment is the hit song “Down at the Twist and Shout,” which--amazingly--melded country-western with Cajun music. And no, I'm not especially impressed by its etymology; I'm impressed because it makes me tap my feet.
Perhaps the best way to listen to it is to see it with the music video, which is just as punchy and energetic as the song. The melody is fast and simple and the tight instrumentation features an accordion, hoe-down fiddle, a flurry of guitars, and drums, which create a snappy shuffling beat. But my favorite instrument (which you'll see in the music video) is some guy thumbing a bullet-proof vest that's in the shape of a washboard. (Washboard-as-an-instrument technology has indeed come a long way since the hillbilly days!) The melody doesn't exactly have any McCartney-esque twists in it, so maybe I wouldn't call the melody brilliant. However, it's catchy and tends to linger for awhile in my head after it's through. It feels like it's been awhile since I've enjoyed a song as much as I've enjoyed that one.
The instrumentation throughout this album is excellent and does mark an improvement over her previous. The big thing that happened was that Father Time killed 1989 and thus allowed Carpenter to use a real piano for her ballads instead of that vibe-piano keyboard, which every pop-musician that year was bound by law to use. Thus, these songs tend to be more organic, and that suits them. The exception is the huge, enhanced drum sound, but I don't mind it. 1990 might have gotten rid of the vibe-piano, but those huge drums would never die.
The album opens with a breezy, acoustic piece, “Going Out Tonight,” which has thoughtful lyrics about meeting an old friend. But the second song, “Right Now,” is where the party starts. I know if I played that danceable country-western ditty to myself as I existed in the mid '90s, I would have sneered at it. I might have joked about stabbing myself in the head to prevent my future self from liking such a thing. (I think I had a bit of a morbid sense of humor.) Well, rest assured little Don Ignacio, I'm not about to go to the nearest country-western bar clad in cowboy boots and a denim shirt and dance to this song with my thumbs in my pockets. The critic part of me wants to complain that the melody and chord progressions are generic. However, as I've sat in a chair and listened to this at work, I've enjoyed its lively pace, infectious vocal performance, and... oh... even those cute piano and electric guitar solos in the middle. Yes, I called them “cute.” In fact, this whole album is “cute.” Your mom would not only like this record, but she probably already has it.
Generally speaking, I like the slow ballads the least, but even those find a way to win me over. When I listen to “When She's Gone,” for example, I start to think it's just an ordinary piano ballad that'll start to get boring at any moment, but then she hits the chorus with her thick and expressive voice, and it grows on me. “Middle Ground” starts similarly, but then some poppy drums pick up one minute into it, and it becomes fun. My favorite ballad is by far is the eternally happy “Halley Came to Jackson,” which goes at a pleasant, skipping pace with a pretty melody. It's instrumented with a few acoustic guitars and a piano, but the gentle fiddle player is my favorite, which does some wonderful, warm things.
The album's closing song, “The Moon and St. Christopher,” is a heavy handed ballad and a duet with Shawn Colvin whose voice I'm only barely able to recognize. It's a pretty song with thoughtful lyrics. (When I was young I spoke like a child / I saw with a child's eyes / And an open door was to a girl / Like the stars are to the sky / It's funny how the world lives up to / All your expectations / With adventures for the stout of heart / And the lure of open spaces.) It might be my least favorite song here, though, because it tends to drag the most. But even then, it's a pretty thing.
To close, this is an excellent country-western album. I'm not claiming that it'll single-handedly win over any converts, but this album is tuneful, thoughtful, and beautifully performed with organic instruments. I'm not even close to being an expert on this subject matter, but if you want to get a good taste of this stuff, you should hear this instead of someone like Toby Keith. (Oh! But how the man flirts with the camera! Like Marilyn Monroe with a trimmed beard! Yeeeehawwww!) 12/15
Come On Come On (1992)
The public has embraced Come On Come On far more than her previous album to the point that it reached quadruple platinum. And yet not one of these songs gives me the itch to dance giddily like “Down at the Twist and Shout.” Also, nothing resonates with me quite as well as “Halley Came to Town” does. However, this is remains an excellent album, and I'm glad something like this would manage to find such overwhelming success. I mean if Milli Vanilli could make it, then why not this?
And when I listen to the first few songs, it makes me wonder if people were just calling Mary Chapin Carpenter's style country-western purely out of tradition. “The Hard Way” sounds exactly like--wait for it--jangle-pop. I mean, I thought I was listening to The La's for a minute! The chorus also picks up an interesting chord progression and so does the middle-eight section. (It's always nice to hear a middle-eight section in pop music. You'd think after the Beatles, they would be more common!) I wouldn't call the song anything more than likable, so I'd stop short of calling it a total masterpiece, but it's an excellent opener.
The second song “He Thinks He'll Keep Her” is another catchy and lovable little piece of pop-rock, which has as much to do with country-western as Rumours-era Fleetwood Mac does. The instrumentation is standard for pop-rock but it is nevertheless an appealingly thick 'n' juicy combination of hefty drums, bright organs, arpeggiating jangle guitars, and spirited piano. Carpenter's heavy vocals, of course, can soar over that concoction like nobody's business.
But I think my favorite tune of the bunch has to be “The Bug” that has such a nice popcorning rhythm guitar, which becomes utterly irresistible when it's combined with a danceable drum-beat. The only drawback is its melody isn't very distinctive to me. I've had the same complaint about most of Carpenter's songs, so I guess that means “The Bug” turns out to be one of my favorite songs of hers!
Oh, and I have a warning to you: “I Feel Lucky” is quite a lot of fun, but it kinda reminds me of “Achy Breaky Heart.” The main difference is that Carpenter's song doesn't suck. (Have you ever noticed that “Achy Breaky Heart” doesn't have a chorus? Carpenter was at least kind enough to our collectively deteriorating ear drums to give us a chorus.) “Walking Through the Fire” is an appealing mid-tempo ditty that has a nicely written melody, but I find regrettably little to go wild over.
As usual, there are a lot of ballads in here... But yikes... The more I get into her discography I've grown less and less enamored her ballads. The ballads in her debut album enchanted me to death, and these ones—while expectedly tasteful and well-written—put me quite well to sleep. “Only a Dream” for instance is a thoughtful ballad with a sullen piano and an OK melody that's beautifully sung, and I can listen to it. But am I going to get the itch to listen to it again? It gets even less exciting when it has a follow-up song, “I Am a Town,” that can be described the same way except the piano comes in later. Maybe the least interesting of them all is the title track, which closes the album on an underwhelming note. ...Now, if you remember that one time I reviewed a whole lotta Elton John and Paul McCartney albums, you probably know I'm usually the guy who likes ballads. But these are regrettably... Zzzzz.......
So I'm glad Mary Chapin Carpenter was able to make a living writing songs; she deserved it, and there are a lot of excellent songs in here. But I think this is a definitive notch below her previous album. Apart from the first few songs, it's a little too blah for me. 11/15
Stones in the Road (1994)
So one thing that's starting to get pretty obvious to me is that I am never ever ever going to like a Mary Chapin Carpenter album more than I liked Shooting Straight in the Dark. After the financial success of Come On Come On, she had effectively found her established formula and didn't bother straying away from it. I've listened to this album from beginning to end, and everything sounds exactly like the songs I didn't particularly care for in her previous album.
The biggest disappointment of them all is that her songwriting has regressed; the impressively well-written “The Hard Way” and “He Thinks He'll Keep Her,” which were hallmarks that I'd hoped would have given her some footing to improve her songwriting, were merely the triumphs of yesteryear. In short, this album has uninteresting ballads that sound like her other uninteresting ballads and uninteresting upbeat country songs that sound like her other uninteresting upbeat country songs. And the ballads DOMINATE this thing, which is bad news for my attention span. Nothing at all pops out at me to show me a wild good time like “Down at the Twist and Shout.” The only thing that ever really jumped out at me is a minor trinket in “Jubilee” in which someone plays Celtic-like tones with a tin whistle. (A “tin whistle,” you say? You mean I actually looked something up?)
But this album does have “Shut Up and Kiss Me” on it, which was her highest charting single all time. And I like it, I do confess. I don't love it, though. It's like a well-written and better performed version of Billy Ray Cyrus' “Achy Breaky Heart.” But didn't I already describe another song as sounding like that on my review of Come On, Come On? Come on, Mary Chapin Carpenter, give us something new! (I apologize to country-western music fans everywhere for always bringing up that song. But I think you guys should also apologize to my childhood for making that godawful thing so popular. I mean, it's all your faults that I didn't start listening to pop-rock until I was 18.)
But when it all comes down to it, all of these songs are quite OK. Some are more OK than others. Even most of the ballads are OK. One particular ballad, the title track, has a factoid attached to it: Carpenter wrote it for Joan Baez who recorded it two years earlier in her 1992 album Play Me Backwards. And considering the song is sort of flat and uninteresting but ultimately far too respectable to ever scoff at, it turned out to be a perfect fit for Baez! (Baez's version is better, by the way. More upbeat.) Another song that reeks of OK-ness is “Outside Looking In,” which sometimes has a heavy drum beat and other times does not.
Easily the best of the ballads is the opening song, “Why Walk When You Can Fly,” which takes a little while to get started but has the closest thing the album has to a memorable tune. It's also instrumented well with a little bit of atmospheric violin, which gives it a bit of warmth. Another wholly decent ballad is the album closer “This is Love,” which manages to rustle up a bit of dust. I don't understand the fade-out and then the fade-in of a dank and musically unrelated piano solo at the end, though. The worst ballad is “John Doe No. 24” which goes on forever with a melody that only drones. Even a cliched saxophone, lending the proceedings some tone, does nothing to save it. And yet, the song is delivered with such an aura of dire seriousness that I can feel the wrath of a million glares if I actually all-out pan the thing. However, I do at least feel comfortable stating that it's handily the worst song I've ever heard her do. Another ballad that isn't a whole lot more interesting, “Where Time Stands Still,” very nearly lives up to its name.
I'll close this review with a usual self-discrediting statement: I suppose Carpenter was never particularly up my alley. Now that I'm listening to albums in which she was starting to get complacent with her songwriting, I'm just bored. However, feel free to raise the rating a notch or two if you enjoy boring singer-songwriter albums from the mid-'90s. 9/15
A Place in the World (1996)
Uh oh. As I was listening to this for the first time, I had a sinking feeling that it would be, yet, another Mary Chapin Carpenter album I wasn't going to like very much. I listened to it a second, third, and fourth time, and that suspicion never wavered. This really isn't that great of an album. It's an OK one. But when it comes right down to it, this album is quite dull. ...But, I guess there have been far greater tragedies in human history. Famine. The Plague. Neo-Conservatism. Really, what's a mediocre Mary Chapin Carpenter album on the grand scale of things? Similarly to her previous album, Come On Come On, which I also had monumental difficulty getting into, all of these songs are respectable. However, they lack that certain glimmer songs need to be great.
Really, this type of album tends to be most difficult for me to do. For the majority of albums I listen to, there's at least one song that I really like, and I'll spend a good hearty paragraph or two concentrating on that one song. Alternately, if I'm reviewing a bad album, I'll dedicate that paragraph to a particular song I really hate. Here, on the other hand, the only thing I actually hate about anything is how I neither love nor hate any of these songs in particular. The melodies are generally well-written but entirely forgettable.
I can at least talk about “Let Me Into Your Heart,” which stood out to me even though it might have been for the wrong reasons. It's one of those songs that sounds a lot like another song except I couldn't quite figure out what it was. It was nagging at me for days, and then I finally figured it out. It was “I'm Free” by The Rolling Stones. That's probably the best song of this album, and she even made a cute music video to go along with it. But eh. If that's the best she has to offer, then I'm seriously not interested.
What's probably worse about the song is that the instrumentation is bland and lifeless even though everything from the guitars, drums, organs, vocals, and a subtle horn section are perfectly mixed. I'm sure the sound engineers were well-paid. But there's no personality to this whatsoever. Give me some VERVE, dang it. Give me some UNIQUENESS. ...At least give me that guy thumbing his washboard from “Down at the Twist and Shout,” because that guy was cool. This blandness, to the contrary, ain't no good. 'Tain't no good 'tall, sista. (Am I country now?)
And the ballads are even worse, because they're just as bland as the fast songs are except they're ballads and hence lamer. “Sudden Gift of Fate” has gently strummed acoustic guitars, sullen piano, and a quiet string orchestra. It's a thing you can soak up if you feel like it, and I don't think you'll be worse off from the experience. It's just that the vocal melody doesn't strike me as memorable, and thus I only space out in front of it. I'm the kind of music listener who wants music to engage me in some respect. This doesn't. The title track is also a slow ballad, but it almost gets lift-off. The melody, AGAIN, isn't very memorable, so I think the reason for the near lift-off must've been the subtly sweeping string arrangements.
“The Better to Dream Of You” must be what the Big Bad Wolf's non-rapist cousin once said to Little Red Riding Hood. It's also another song on this album with singing, guitars, and drums. The chorus is OK but it still doesn't stick in my mind. What else does it have? There's a mandolin briefly. I also heard a mandolin in the title track, so I guess that instrument was a member of the union. That song also has lyrics. I need to pad out this review a little more, so I'll reprint some lyrics for you. (“All the better to dream of you / The better to be this side of heaven / Believing again when a dream comes true / The better to dream of you.”) Wow. Riveting lyrics.
I feel somewhat empowered writing a lukewarm review of this album, because of all the other lukewarm reviews I've read of it on Amazon. So my opinion isn't that weird at all! This is a perfectly passable album, if all you want is an album with pleasant sounding songs on it. But if you want an album that has interesting songs on it, then I'd opt for something else. 8/15
Party Doll and Other Favorites (1999)
I don't normally review greatest hits compilations, but this is a unique take on one, featuring not only the typical studio cuts from her back-catalog, but live versions of some of her other hits as well as a few brand new studio songs. Best of all, some of these the live cuts are head-over-heels superior to their studio counterparts. For instance, this live recording of “Can't Take Love For Granted,” taken from Carpenter's 1995 appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman, is only barely recognizable as the same song. The original was a thoughtful ballad that was nice, but entirely forgettable. Here, it's been transformed into a gruffy rocker with a riff that's absolutely infectious. This riff is all but absent in the original, and it helped turn the song into the absolute delight that I suppose it must have been destined to be.
The live version of “Quittin' Time” is quite the opposite of that: It was originally an upbeat pop-rocker in the studio, but here it's transformed into a thoughtful ballad. Usually I prefer FAST versions of songs--as does every other decent human being on this planet--but this slow version is decent as well since both versions have infectious melodies. The downside is that this version goes on for a little too long.
There's a live version of “Down at the Twist and Shout” that was taken from her performance at Superbowl XXXI. I'm pretty sure I watched the Superbowl that year (along with tens of millions of other Americans), so there's a pretty good chance I'd seen this performance live. It doesn't quite match the crunchy goodness of the studio cut, but as expected, it's fun and energetic. I prefer the studio cut of “The Hard Way” to this more laid-back live version, but it is actually novel to hear a different version of an excellent studio song. (Huh, I guess this is why we listen to live albums sometimes.)
The best of the brand new songs is handily “Wherever You Are,” which isn't exactly brilliant, but it's head-over-heels better than anything from A Place in the World. Definitely a step in the right direction. “Dreamland” is another slow one, a lullaby. And for sure, it's not bad for a lullaby: The melody is perfectly fine and sung solidly with her husky vocals. The instrumentation is polished and friendly for mass-consumption without being horribly stale (as things typically were in A Place in the World). However, there's little about the song that makes me want to return to it. The gospel-ish “Almost Home” isn't her most memorable moment, but it's upbeat, enjoyable, and makes an overall good listen. That is despite the fact I know I would have hated it 10 years ago, because it reminds me of those '00s CCM songs youth pastors used to stuff down my throat. You see, I'm not a youth anymore, so these days I can take this stuff easier!
“Grow Old With Me” is a studio cover of a John Lennon song that was recorded shortly before his death. For sure, it has a pretty melody that is sung by Carpenter with grace, as though we would expect anything less. I wish she wouldn't sing so many doggoned ballads. I suppose since Carpenter was in the mood for resurrecting obscure songs written by superstars from the '60s, there's also a cover of Mick Jagger's “Party Doll” from his 1987 album solo album Primitive Cool. I far prefer Jagger's rugged version to Carpenter's pretty-folk version; however, I do at least have to thank Carpenter for bringing the Jagger song to my attention, because I've never heard it before. “10,000 Miles” is a cover of an ancient folk song written by “Mr. Traditional.” Even though I'm getting wary of these slowly paced tunes, I have to admit, her voice sounds positively golden over the heavy, symphonic orchestration and the heavily textured piano arpeggiations. Let's call that one the surprise gem of the album.
The copied-and-pasted studio tracks--no surprise--sound exactly the same. “He Thinks He'll Keep Her” continues to be a bona fide classic, as far as I'm concerned, and it's a joy to be able to hear that song again. However, I continue to find both “I Feel Lucky” and “Shut Up and Kiss Me” off-putting, because they remind me so much of “Achy Breaky Heart.” “This Shirt” must've grown on me since I listened to it last a few months ago when I reviewed State of the Heart where I only inspired enough to give it a B-. Sure, it's a bit slow and those generic 1989 keyboards can only drag it down, but I don't think I quite squinted my ears enough to notice that it has a perfectly fetching melody.
Overall, this is a unique approach to a Greatest Hits album, and I'm sure her longtime fans have relished this release far greater than they would have relished a more standard Greatest Hits album. Fortunately, this album was released only in 1999 so it would only be a couple years before iTunes came on the scene enabling you to piece together your own Greatest Hits album. I'll give this a hearty 12/15.
Time* Sex* Love* (2001)
I was considering defying the proper stylization and removing those asterisks from the album title, because they were annoying me, but I sucked it up and wrote them out anyway. However, I will refer to this album henceforth as The Album Mary Chapin Carpenter Released in 2001. I would also like to take this moment to welcome her back to the land of the living for releasing this album, which is her best all-original album since 1992's Come On, Come On. ...Regrettably, I'm about 11 years to late offering this congratulations, but I've only just now gotten around to listen to it. (Sorry.)
This is her seventh album, and don't expect any revolutions. Carpenter wasn't much in the habit of experimenting with her sound. It's safe to say if you already know her classic albums, then you know this one as well. ...And I didn't mean that as a put-down, by the way. Such a thing would hardly deter her fans one bit; they don't want her to change. And if she can continue releasing albums with good songs on it like this, then why should she? I do criticize album for one thing, though: it lacks the wide-eyed freshness that her classic albums had. But that doesn't mean these aren't good songs.
One such good song is “Whenever You're Ready,” which not only opens the album, but I think it's one of the best she's ever written. ...Although I wonder if that song-title was meant to refer to the song itself. Carpenter spends about a minute before the song starts boringly piddling around with a piano. But be patient; she'll get around to strumming an upbeat guitar and singing in that husky voice of hers one of these minutes. The melody she eventually sings, by the way, is lovely; it's one of those melodies that manages to weave its way into my heart. Another song that I like especially is “Maybe World, which has a strong '60s sunshine-pop flavor to it. It's characterized with some grandiose Ba! Ba-Ba! Ba-bah-Ba-bah! sounds that remind me strongly of the middle of The Turtles' “Happy Together.” My only complaint about the song is that the verses are just a bit sluggish.
“Swept Away” and “What Was it Like” are both fine ballads with wonderful tunes and vocal performances that can be described as nothing less than sincere. Another ballad that I find to be especially nice is “Alone But Not Lonely,” which is one of those rare songs that have lyrics that manage to sting my heart. Believe me, if all the ballads on this album were like those, then I'd be whistling at the sun about them. But unfortunately, this album's lumbered down with other ballads that seem to rather bore me. “King of Love” is one of them, even though it starts out with kind of odd sounds—a shaker, a booming noise, and backward guitars. It then breaks into a typical, low-key acoustic guitar strumming and an uber-serious vocal performance. I'd surely describe the song as “well-written,” but that's my not-so-secret code-word for “not very interesting.” “Someone Else's Prayer” falls into the same category. However, I think she might have been onto something when she came up with that hypnotizing acoustic guitar pattern that reminds me of wind chimes. Now if only she had a more engaging melody to go along with it... Yet another ballad is “The Dreaming Road,” but at least that one's closer to getting it right. That is, she gives us a heavy but not overpowering atmosphere that gains a bit of momentum. Although it ultimately doesn't seem to go anywhere.
I also hear George Harrison whispering to me during “In the Name of Love”--not only because I hear predominantly some kind of instrument that sounds like a sitar, but I also briefly hear a guitar riff at the beginning that reminds me of “Gone Troppo.” (Does anyone else hear that?) The downside is that after the first minute or so, the song grows somewhat stale.
One somewhat obvious flaw of this album is its rather overpowering length, a whopping 73-minutes. Surely, the album would have improved a bit with some trimming down. On the other hand, I can't say that there are really any particularly bad songs in here. Perhaps a few moment I find a bit dull. I rather think a Carpenter fan would end up liking everything here, so I guess let's just let this 73-minute album play on. 11/15
Between Here and Gone (2004)
This album strikes me as something Mary Chapin Carpenter made just sitting back in her easy chair and making an album that she wanted to make. There's nothing in here that suggest she was trying to create a hit song. (And she might have surmised, anyway, it would have been unlikely for her to have created a hit single in the '00s, no matter how good it was.) But no matter; this is an album her fans would surely take to heart. This is organic folk and country, and the instrumentation is earthy, the melodies are usually striking, and she uses her husky, watery singing voice with as much sincerity as ever. Naturally, apart from its relatively more laid-back and organic nature, it isn't terribly different from any of Carpenter's previous albums; after all, she was never really known for changing her style much. She just altered her sound slightly. (I mean, her album eight years previous to this A Place in the World was just so stale.)
She might not have been trying to get a hit song out of this, but I do wish there was just one single song here that I could really prop up and celebrate, like I'd celebrated in one of her previous albums for “Down at the Twist and Shout.” It's OK for great albums to be loaded with songs that range between above-average to excellent, but they should at least have a song or two that I want to take with me long after the album got through playing. While this is solid through and through, I don't really get any huge, take-away moments from this. The best song here I'd say is “Luna's Gone,” which is a pleasant, mid-tempo country-western tune with a solid vocal hook and basic folk-country instrumentation (strumming acoustic guitar, pretty slide guitar, fiddles, electric organ etc.). When I listen to it, I enjoy it. But do I absolutely love it?
The best thing I can report about this album is that Carpenter had finally addressed what I've been harping about in her previous albums: the ballads. I've been complaining that she writes way too many of them. ...Well, there are still quite a lot of ballads here, too, but these ones more often than not actually make good listens. Nothing big, mind you, but I find them quite engaging. That's thanks mostly to do with the melodies, which are somewhat more potent than her previous albums. But it also has something to do with the more earthen instrumentation she uses. The acoustic guitars, steel guitars, slide guitars, pianos, fiddles, etc... They all have a charming, loose, and laid-back quality to them, which creates an atmosphere that I'd liken to sitting outside in the breezy country in the shade. “Goodnight America” is definitely one of the finer ballads here; it has a beautifully bittersweet vocal melody and a haunting atmosphere.
But not everything here is picture perfect. One ballad that I don't think quite works is “Between Here and Gone.” That's even though it has an interesting back-story; she wrote it after hearing the news that folk singer Dave Carter had died. ...Occasionally, these types of mournful songs take me into the depths of their souls and move me tremendously in the process. But this isn't one of those songs. (I'm sorry.) A far better ballad, in my opinion, is “One Small Heart,” which has a fitfully interesting melody, another vividly engaging vocal performance, and a slide guitar that wafts in and out hauntingly like a ghost. My complaint about it is that its six-minute running length easily could have been cut to four. (Small complaint? ...Yes.) I'm of course a sucker for the upbeat songs. That is, in those rare instances in which Carpenter decides to grace us with one of those! One upbeat song is “A Beautiful Racket,” which has a catchy melody and a toe-tapping beat. Of all the upbeat songs she's ever done, I think it's one of her best. (Hint, hint, Ms. Carpenter: More upbeat songs!)
I suppose one problem with this album is that it's nearly an hour long, and there's not enough variety in the songs. Even though I think this album contains some of the finer ballads she's ever written, I still think there are too many of them. But all in all, I've enjoyed my time listening to this album, and I would recommend it wholeheartedly to her fans. (The rest of you: Go listen to Shooting Straight in the Dark and Come On Come On, and then come back.) I'd rank this as an 11/15.
Mary Chapin Carpenter and Shawn Colvin Live: Edmonds, Wash (May 11, 2012)
I didn't realize this was going to happen until I was actually at the show, but these two women were on stage together for the entire show singing on one another's songs. (I guess I didn't read the tickets very carefully, which stated explicitly the name of the tour was “On Stage Together.”) They didn't bring a band with them, so it was just them and a couple acoustic guitars each. However, Colvin didn't know Carpenter's songs well enough to actually play guitar on them and vice versa; the support was mostly through providing back-up vocals.
I know; if you're an old dude or lady and you are reading this, you are probably seething with jealously that I got to go to this. There was only one show left in this tour, which took place in Tacoma, so it's already too late for you to see this if you haven't already. However, there's still a glimmer of hope; they said they were hoping to tour again in the same format in 2013. And if you're able to attend one of these shows, let it be known: the older you are, the more you're going to fit in. The audience at this place was nothing but a sea of gray heads and old-men-hats. (And I'm jealous of gray heads, since I am a balding head.)
I'm also very thrilled to announce that my persistent curse last year of never being able to remember the opening songs of artists' set-lists is now broken. The reason for that is because I sat right behind the sound-mixer's station who had a copy of the set-list with him. I didn't lean over and actually read this list in its entirely, though. It was kind of hard to read, and it also would have been a very goofy thing to do (even for me). However, I did squint my eyes long enough at it to read the first item, which was “Catch the Wind.” After reading that, though, I noted that the title didn't ring a bell with me whatsoever. I figured that must have been one of their new-fangled songs or something. And the song was nice, definitely. Quite short. It wasn't until I got home that I learned that it was actually a Donovan cover. As a supposedly rabid music buff who likes old-people music, it hurt me deeply I didn't recognize it.
I'm sure plenty of people feel this, but it's initially bizarre to me to see pop stars walk on the stage for the first time. It's like I don't really grasp that the people from the album covers and music videos actually exist, and it takes a minute or so to adjust to the realization that they do. And I had a great seat. Smack dab in the middle of the room and about 12 rows back. There was Shawn Colvin slightly to my left and Mary Chapin Carpenter slightly to my right. Here is what they were wearing: Carpenter was in jeans and an unbuttoned, 19th-Century-style overcoat; Colvin was in--from the knees up--an elegant black gown, and--from the knees down--leggings. Fascinating. This was at that same intimate and acoustically fantastic venue that I'd seen Al Stewart and Randy Newman perform last year.
I've also come up with a new name for Shawn Colvin. And that is Shawn “No Hit” Colvin. She gets that name for not performing “Sunny Came Home,” which is by far her biggest hit. I was surprised about this omission albeit not especially gutted. However, I almost always figure a musician who is especially known for one song would eventually get around to performing it. But she's a rebel, I guess!
Carpenter also didn't perform my favorite song of hers, which is “Down at the Twist and Shout.” However, I'm perfectly willing to give her a pass for that (in my infinite wisdom), because that ditty is best performed with a full-on band. Not that it wouldn't have also been great with just the lady and a guitar, but it would have lost its rock 'n' roll element.
However, maybe a little more upbeat rock 'n' roll wouldn't have been such a bad idea, because this was one depressing show. Well that wasn't a surprise to anyone, since anyone who is familiar with their stuff knows that they write some awfully depressing music. But depressing or not, the songs are entertaining--especially when you hear them in person--so I am not complaining. Besides, Mary Chapin Carpenter did us all a favor and performed the first two songs from Come On, Come On, which I believe I remarked were two examples of brilliant pop-songwriting. With that said, she also performed the title track from that album, and all I had running through my mind at the time was that I gave it a B- on my Blog! The house lights were pitch black, thankfully, which meant she couldn't see my guilt on my face.
Another song Carpenter sang was “This Shirt,” which was a low-key song from State of the Heart that I also gave a B- to. To be honest, as she was singing it, I could only vaguely recall that I'd heard it before. Despite me reviewing that album a month or so ago, I'd nearly forgotten about it. I absolutely refuse to take notes at a concert, so you might be wondering how I can even remember I heard that song. Here was my trick: I stored in my brain two words of the lyrics, “silver buttons,” and then Googled it when I got home. They also sang a Simon & Garfunkel song from a classic album that my music-nerd ego feels horrified to admit I'd never heard before. The song was “The Only Living Boy in New York," and I know that because I memorized “Mexico” from the lyrics. But that was an excellent performance, as Colvin's honey-pure, in-person vocals took the lead, and it certainly makes me want to get to know that album a little more.
Both of them were in the midst of promoting new albums to be released in June, and thus they were singing quite a few songs that nobody was familiar with. They were all quite nice songs, though, albiet depressing as all their other things. I heard one guy seated right behind me exclaim after Carpenter finished a new one: “Garsh! What an excellent song!” (I think that might have been a cartoon Goofy behind me.) So I guess we can take it from that guy: It's worth going out and buying her album in June. But anyone who was paying attention at the show would be sure to not buy them from Amazon or iTunes. Carpenter told everyone to instead go to an independent, brick-and-mortar bookstore. This advice that got hefty applause from the audience who may have never heard of an 'Internet' before. But naturally, the thing is still going to be sold on Amazon and iTunes, because I presume she still wants to make money from it. In addition to a new album, Colvin also said she has a memoir coming out in June. I don't think I'll read it, though, because the only memoir I've ever read was Bill Cosby's when I was 10. (Man, I had no idea that Jello guy had such humble beginnings.)
One thing Colvin and Chapin did quite extensively at the show was tune their guitars by ear, which takes a little while to do, and they bantered about with one another as they did so. (Colvin kept referring to Carpenter as Chapin, so I would advise you to do the same if you want to make like you're one of her close friends.) Colvin was far better at talking while tuning than Carpenter was, a fact that Carpenter seemed to marvel over. Hence, we ended up hearing Colvin speak far more often. She told us about this one time she opened for Sting and sang “Everything She Does is Magic” without telling him she would. She wasn't sure whether that angered him, but he did make fun of the fact that she spends so much time tuning her guitar on stage. “They make a tuner, you know,” she said he said. And her response to that was to call him a “pansy-ass motherf*cker.” (This is a family website, and so I have to censor curse words like that. As you're probably well aware, one letter replaced by one asterisk in an obscene word confuses minors so much that all they see is a faint blur.) Also, during the guitar-tuning process, Colvin asked Carpenter for her least favorite word. She took an entire song to think about it but finally came up with a two-word response: “Rush Limbaugh.” The heavily liberal crowd, of course, ate up that response for dinner. In fact, I have a feeling the only thing that would stop these people from literally eating Rush Limbaugh would be that he wouldn't go well with red wine. Carpenter also said her favorite word was “love,” which sent a pulse of puppy dog sighs throughout the audience.
Colvin also said something interesting in the middle of her performance of “Polaroids.” After writing that song, she was horrified to realize that she'd inadvertently ripped off Jackie DeShannon's “Put a Little Love in Your Heart.” But she said she got over it quickly. After all--and I agree with this--if you're going to write a simple, two-chord song, you shouldn't be too shocked if others write two-chord songs vaguely resembling it. (Now why didn't someone tell that to the judge who presided over George Harrison's “My Sweet Lord”/“He's So Fine” lawsuit? How did the plantiff ever convince the judge that a three-note melody over two chords can be owned?) Colvin then went off on a surprising medley of other two-chord songs. I do wish I wrote down the names of some of these songs when I got home, because I recognized most of them, but many of them have since wafted out of my mind. One song was Dylan's “Like a Rolling Stone.” Another was The Rolling Stones' “Beast of Burden.” The most surprising one was Katy Perry's “California Gurls." I remember she started to crack up after singing the lyric “I'll melt your Popsicle.” At the very end of this medley, she sang a song that I plum didn't recognize. But the audience recognized it, because I heard a dense sea of voices singing along to it, including the tone-deaf guy seated next to me. She mentioned Don Henley somewhere during that performance, which makes me assume it was an Eagles song. That's probably what it was; even though that band is extremely famous, I only know three of their songs. Two of them is only thanks to an episode of Seinfeld.
But anyway, my favorite song that Colvin sang that evening was “House of Blues” from Fat City. It's always great to hear excellent songs like that come directly from its source. Why, that's the whole reason I like to go to concerts in the first place.
Also, I feel the need to bring up the fact that a lot of old people are cranky old hags. I like to study these people, because one day I too would like to become a cranky old hag. The reason I bring this up is because before the show I was seated next to my family when this cranky old hag barked at my mother: “I need to get through!” I figured her seat was in my row, so I gladly got up from my seat to let her through. But it turned out she was headed to the other side of the auditorium. If someone tries that to me 40-50 years from now, I'm going to hollar after her: “Go around us next time, you stupid old bat!”
Another item Colvin sang from her repertoire was her cover of Steve Earle's “Someday.” She'd also done that song on her 1994 cover album Cover Girl, and as you might recall in my review of that, I said: “Who is Steve Earle?” ...Hearing her do the song live, I still don't think it's especially phenomenal. However, she really attests to liking it. She said she used to play it endlessly to herself on her Walkman. Could it be that some people like certain songs more than others? Go figure. She also sang “Diamond in the Rough” from her debut album, which is a song that everyone in the crowd really seemed to love. And that was including me, of course.
I'm not sure how sarcastic this review reads to any of you, but in case there's any doubt, I really enjoyed the concert and would definitely do it again. As some PR guy wrote in a press release, this was a once-in-a-lifetime event. I hope to one day bore my grandkids (or someone else's grandkids if I never have any) with the story of me going to this thing.