Three Great CDs from 2004


Mary Chapin Carpenter - The Essential Mary Chapin Carpenter

Columbia Legacy

Listening to Mary Chapin Carpenter is like drinking wine from a bottle that came from a case you've had sitting in your cellar for a while. Every time you take a sip you're reminded of just how sublime it tastes, and you wonder why you waited so long to open up another bottle.

As the most recent release in Columbia's "Essential" Series, this CD serves as a sort of super "greatest hits" anthology. You'll find material from six of Mary Chapin Carpenter's eight Columbia releases, with only her first, Hometown Girl, and A Place in the World, unrepresented. Carpenter herself wrote all but three of the songs on The Essential Mary Chapin Carpenter. The exceptions are Lucinda William's "Passionate Kisses," Robb Royer and Roger Lynn's "Quittin' Time," and the traditional song "10,000 Miles." Some of her own songs such as "Stones in the Road," "Only a Dream," and "Almost Home," have the fervor of a truly great political/social tune on par with the work of Bob Dylan or Woody Guthrie. Others such as "Shut Up and Kiss Me" and "I Feel Lucky" capture a rollicking goodtime country mood comparable with the best Hank Williams song. When Mary Chapin Carpenter is on, her work rivals anyone who has ever penned a song.

Consistently sterling production values and arrangements are another trademark of Mary Chapin Carpenter's career. Her longtime musical collaborator John Jennings not only produced or co-produced all her albums, but also played guitar and arranged much of her material. A gifted songwriter in his own right, with three of his own solo releases, Jennings polishes and highlights Carpenters songs the way a gifted cutter handles a diamond.

Although longtime fans will find nothing new on The Essential Mary Chapin Carpenter, they may still find it an irresistible addition to their short list of ideal road trip CDs. For those who never acquired any Mary Chapin Carpenter discs The Essential Mary Chapin Carpenter makes the perfect introduction. 



Grant-Lee Phillips - Virginia Creeper

Rounder Records

Moody ennui-inflected acoustic pop music is nothing new. Singer-songwriters have been baring their tortured souls to the general public for well over forty years. But just because something has already been done doesn't mean that it can't be done better. Grant-Lee Phillips combines a voice reminiscent of Donovan with the sensibilities of Jude Cole. The former front man for the band Grant Lee Buffalo, Phillips' atmospheric songs unite infectious melodies with enough forward momentum and narrative direction to make them fresh and interesting. Ten of the eleven songs on Virginia Creeper are originals. The only cover, Gram Parson's classic "Hickory Wind" illustrates Phillips' ability to stretch out a tune without letting it drag. His rendition has a particularly eerie and otherworldly ambience that transforms it into a musical ghost story.

Unlike his previous solo release, which featured Phillips playing all the                            instruments, a full band support him on this album. Pianist Zac Rae, violinist Eric Gorfain, bassists Sheldon Gomberg and Sebastian Steinberg, drummer Kevin Jarvis, and background vocalist Cindy Wasserman joined Phillips at Hollywood,  California's Sunset Sound studios under the guiding hand of recording engineer S. Husky Hoskulds. The sonic results have a live vibrant feel that still allows the music to breathe deeply. Although the final aural results are somewhat similar to the best work of Daniel Lanois or Sarah McLachlan's producer Pierre Marchand, here the choices of particular instrumental parts rather than multiple overdubs or ambient studio effects supply the musical atmosphere.

Virginia Creeper is the sort of disc that grows on you like a fast moving weed. Even music fans who feel that pop songwriting reached its apex during the 70's may find Grant-Lee Phillips songs right up their alley. He may even make them into modern music fans.



Kate Rusby  - Underneath the Stars

Compass records

If there is such a thing as a Celtic music diva exists, Kate Rusby qualifies. Underneath the Stars, her fifth Compass Records release, displays the breadth of her mastery.  Besides a ravishing voice, Rusby has remarkable musical sensibilities. She can take a traditional song such as the album opener "The Good Man" and combine its time-worn lyrics with an original tune to create a new composition that is not only fresh and contemporary but has the feel and flavor of a traditional song. Unlike the folk artists of the 60's whose "updated" renditions of traditional material merely turned the songs into pop ditties, Rusby's versions have a thoroughly genuine feeling that defies fad and fleeting fashion.

Along with Rusby's reinterpretations of traditional tunes and lyrics, Underneath the Stars includes several completely new compositions.  Even these new works have the flavor of much older material. "Polly" is the tale of a girl whose lover is a sailor. He goes away but promises to "take you dancing on your wedding day." He doesn't come back, and she never dances again. Another song titled "Falling" describes the first feelings of love with the delicacy of a butterfly's wing. 

Produced by her husband and longtime collaborator John McCusker, Underneath the Stars features sympathetic accompaniment by a fine core of traditional musicians. Ian Carr on mandolin and guitar, Ewen Vernal on double bass, Andy Cutting on diatonic accordion, James Mackintosh o percussion, Andy Seward on banjo, Neil Yates on trumpet and flugel horn, and Simon Fowler and Eddi Reader on background vocals join John McCusker's citern, whistles, banjo, and fiddle. Keeping with the family feeling Underneath the Stars is engineered by Joe Rusby, whom I assume is a brother. The sound is both sumptuous and seductive, as befits the music. Even when a full house of musicians is brought to bear, the mix never feels too thick or busy, but preserves a sense of air and space.

Perhaps somewhere there are musicians capable of creating more compelling traditionally flavored popular music, but I doubt you'll find them on this side of the mortal coil. Kate Rusby rules.

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