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.
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
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.