Thursday, 16 August 2018

Mary Chapin Carpenter

"So I came home and I had a resume and everything, but the only job experience I had was just playing in bars and clubs on my summers off. So, I was temping and stuff during the day and playing music at night" - Mary Chapin Carpenter

Hometown Girl (1987)

This was Mary Chapin Carpenter's much underrated, beautiful, melodic debut album. It is an album of a young girl singing the most tender, sensitive, moving and wise beyond her years songs. It is one of my favourite albums.

It is more "country" than her subsequent albums, probably the most so of her output, but certainly is different from the stereotypical crying in the roadhouse over your divorce and unfaithful, feckless husband sort of fare. While it was recorded in Nashville, it is not your typical Nashville album. It is based around the expected acoustic strumming guitar and some fetching violin breaks, with some electric guitar, but a bit less than on her later albums. All the songs are irresistibly catchy and tuneful. Mary has a real ear for a melody and a hook, and her lyrics are just so emotive, observant and you har them and just find yourself nodding in agreement with whatever it is she has just sung.
A Lot Like Me is lively but gently romantic, while Other Streets And Other Towns is just a gorgeous slow country ballad, but with a real soulful twist in its delivery. The music is not all steel guitars, far from it, there are hardly any at all. The guitar solo on this song, for example, is pure laid-back rock. Mary had obviously been in love when writing this album, many of the songs are impossibly romantic. 

Hometown Girl is just lovely. Mary is, as she often can be, disarmingly self-analytical and self-critical. This is her At Seventeen. When she starts singing this song, it genuinely sends shivers down my spine, shivers of pure emotion. It makes me extremely sad and reflective. "I was young but somehow I knew the difference between a man and a fool...". What a line. "What happened to that hometown girl...." wonders Mary, already mature beyond her tender years, already looking back. The past is always Mary's future. As is mine. That is why I love her lyrics so. 

Her cover of Tom Waits' Downtown Train is excellent - soulful and evocative, full of subtly sexy feeling. I love this version. 
Then we come to Family Hands, a song which is up there in my top five MCC songs of all time. It is full of beautiful lyrical images. I love the lyrics so much I'm going to break with tradition and quote the whole damn song :-

"Last Sunday we got in the car and we drove 
To the town you were raised in, your boyhood home 
The trees were just turning, up on the ridge 
And this was your valley when you were a kid 
You showed me the railroad that your daddy worked on  
As we neared the old house where your granny lives on 
She's nearing ninety years now, with her daughters by her side 
Who tend the places in the heart where loneliness can hide

Raised by the women who are stronger than you know 

A patchwork quilt of memory only women could have sewn 
The threads were stitched by family hands, protected from the moth 
By your mother and her mother - the weavers of your cloth

Your grandmother owned a gun in 1932

When times were bad just everywhere; you said she used it too 
And the life and times of everyone are traced inside their palms 
Her skin may be so weathered, but her grip is still so strong 
And I see your eyes belong to her and to your mama too 
A slice of Virginia sky, the clearest shade of blue

Raised by the women who are stronger than you know 

A patchwork quilt of memory only women could have sewn 
The threads were stitched by family hands, protected from the moth 
By your mother and her mother--the weavers of your cloth

And a rich man you might never be; they'd love you just the same 

They've handed down so much to you besides your Christian name 
And the spoken word won't heal you like the laying on of hands 
Belonging to the ones who raised you to a man

Raised by the women who are stronger than you know 

A patchwork quilt of memory only women could have sewn 
The threads were stitched by family hands, protected from the moth 
By your mother and her mother - the weavers of your cloth." 

Mary Chapin Carpenter 1987.

Wonderful. Check it out. It speaks for itself.

A Road Is Just A Road livens proceedings up, name checking many US towns along the way. It is a vibrant piece of country rock, and is another of my favourites. I have always found the last few songs on the album not quite as jaw-droppingly good as the first six, but they are still certainly not bad. 
Come On Home is a beautiful, slow, mournful ballad with a beautiful violin backing. Waltz utilises a waltz beat as the title suggests, but it is a slow country waltz, with romantic lyrics and a sumptuous country violin break in the middle. Just Because is another slowie, with Mary's voice at its most yearning and heartbreaking. Heroes And Heroines is a lovely song that was effectively re-sung on 2018's Sometimes Just The Sky. It is yet another genuinely moving number that closed this most impressive debut album from an artist whose music has uplifted, saddened and inspired me over many years.

State Of The Heart (1989)

After her stunning, underrated debut, this is Mary Chapin Carpenter's second album of gentle non-steel guitar country ballads and mid-paced catchy electric country rock. Like on the debut, there are some really gorgeous, moving songs on here. It is probably slightly more "country" in its sound than the more folky debut.
How Do starts the album off in an upbeat country style, and Something Of A Dreamer builds up to have a bit of a rock beat at the end, but it is still a laid-back contemplative country number. Never Had It So Good sees a full electric band come in, but it has that dignified, stately medium pace and Mary's soulful, country voice, free of Southern twang, replaced by emotion and a quiet, wise sexiness. Read My Lips is Mary at her most country-ish, which in her case, often means quite bluesy too, which I love about her. She merges country with the blues at times, which makes for a good combination. This Shirt is one of those beautifully emotional MCC songs. She gets nostalgic about her old denim shirt, which is a really quirky idea for a song. It has some moving and heartbreaking lines in it - 

"this shirt was the place where your cat decided to give birth to five, we stayed up all night watching and we wept when the last one died....". See what I mean? "This shirt is the one I wore to every boring high school dance, where the boys ignored the girls and we all pretended to like the band...". 

Wryly observational MCC at her very best. Only Mary Chapin could write such a genuinely moving song about a shirt. She wears the shirt now for "Sunday chores". It is now a "grand old relic". Mary and her shirt now have that status for me.

Quittin' Time is one of the first of the full-on electric country rock numbers that would populate her next three or four albums - powerful, singalong and in possession of a killer hook and guitar riff. 
Down In Mary's Land has her declaring her love for all things rural and country, suitably backed by a melodic fiddle. Goodbye Again is a slow, tender, sensitive song about marital infidelity which sees Mary showing wisdom beyond her years. Too Tired is another bluesy rock-ish grinder with some upbeat bluesy guitar-driven rock parts. Slow Country Dance is a bit like Waltz on the previous album - a ballad sung over a slow country waltz beat. It Don't Bring You is a gorgeous song to end the album on. Again, I have kept using the adjective "sensitive" because there is no other one - that is what the songs are, wonderfully so.

Shooting Straight In The Dark (1990)

You know, I would love to have Mary Chapin Carpenter round for dinner. She would be great company - sensitive, funny, observant, nostalgic, just like her albums, in fact. This one was the one before her big breakthrough album, Come On Come On, but it is just as good. To be honest it could do with a remastering as you have to turn the sound up on it a bit, and it is just a little muffled in places, but no real matter, as Mary’s voice is crystal clear and her and her band’s musicianship is excellent always. This is only a slight gripe though, very slight indeed.

My favourite on here is Middle Ground, which tells of a career-obsessed thirty something woman who has had no time for successful relationships.

"....all her single friends are men
She thinks married girls are so damn boring..."

It is a kind of opposite partner to the next album’s He Thinks He’ll Keep Her, but featuring a different type of woman, but both characters are similarly frustrated and unfulfilled. Mary does these sad tales so well, and always against a supremely melodic, catchy backing. 
Then there is the Cajun/Zydeco good time romp of Down At The Twist And Shout which is irresistibly toe-tapping. Check out the video to this which has a young Mary manically dancing throughout, something surprisingly to see in that she has often appeared a bit gauche and shy on stage. Here she is giving it all, and some. She doesn’t keep still for a second. The apparently autobiographical solid country rock of Can't Take Love For Granted is about a guy who did her bad and there is some folky nostalgia of Halley Came To Jackson (about Halley’s comet which was seen in 1910). The albums ends with the simply beautiful, wistful and evocative The Moon And St. Christopher. This is one of Mary’s loveliest songs. Full of heartbreak but hope at the same time. You can’t go far wrong with this bunch of songs. Top quality. Mary's knack for finding a killer lyric is something that has always amazed me. She is one of the best singer-songwriters around. No question.

All the others are fine too, to be honest, Going Out Tonight is an upbeat, thumping “I’m gonna do what the hell I like” song and Right Now is a slice of lively country fun. 
The plaintive, emotional What You Didn't Say is just gorgeous. Mary never fails to move me. As she has aged, Mary has become more “age appropriate” and reflective, but here she was younger and livelier, but not without that wise, world-weariness that has always been so appealing about her. Who else could write

"....morning comes on an old cat's paws
And when the sun hits the walls
The light's as bright as it ever was....".

Come On Come On (1992)
After three excellent but average-selling albums, this was the album that really broke it big for Mary Chapin Carpenter and her appealing brand of melodic country rock and wordly-wise, often wittily cynical lyrics from a female point of view. Hers were no “hard drinkin’ and hard lovin’” songs, they were about struggling bring up kids, trying to make it in a career, about travelling the world, about lovers, husbands, wives, friends and family. In my view, she is one of the greatest singer-songwriters of her generation and, indeed, of many others. Her songs have meant so much to me for over twenty-five years now.
This is undoubtedly the most commercially accessible of her many albums, and the one that got her on to Radio Two and the like. It starts with the irresistible, lively rock of The Hard Way with its killer riff and uplifting harmonious chorus. He Thinks He’ll Keep Her is also a MCC classic. A rousing piece of country rock about a put-upon wife who eventually has enough and says “I don’t love you anymore”. Just a great splitting up song, from a different perspective. The Rhythm Of The Blues shows MCC at her, quiet, sensitive, observant and beautifully emotional side. Just a lovely song. She can do a ballsy rock-blues number too and does that just that with the wryly witty barroom boogie of I Feel Lucky. The country blues continues with an impressive cover of Dire Straits’ The Bug, which suits her down to the ground. Not Too Much To Ask is a slow, lovely ballad, a duet with country singer Joe Diffie, while Passionate Kisses is a vibrant, singalong cover of a Lucinda Williams song. Only A Dream is another moving slow number, packed with character and descriptive images. The songs and their delivery are just so damn good. They never fail to move me.

One of my favourites from the album, and indeed of all her songs, is I Am A Town - an evocative song about travelling south in the USA, with a delightful tiny piano coda of Dixie at one point. Again, just great images in the lyrics -

"I'm a town in Carolina, I am billboards in the fields
I'm an old truck up on cinder blocks, missing all my wheels
I am Pabst Blue Ribbon, American, and "Southern Serves the South"
I am tucked behind the Jaycees sign, on the rural route"

Both Walking Through Fire and I Take My Chances are upbeat, radio-friendly country rockers, but not without some world-weary lyrics, particularly in the latter. MCC can play a mean guitar too, and her songs often have addictive riffs. 
The final track is an absolute beauty. Come On Come On is a cinematic, atmospheric corker of a song, in which MCC sings of her parents’ visit to Paris in 1948. Again, it is haunting and simply beautiful. Words cannot express how wonderful these songs are. Just a fantastic album.

Stones In The Road (1994)

It was on this album, after the commercial, radio-friendly sounds of 1992's Come on Come On that we saw the first hints of the more stripped-down, quieter, folkier, reflective songs that would come to characterise Mary Chapin Carpenter's subsequent albums from this point on. It wasn't quite a full "turning point" however, but there certainly were signs. Lyrics are very much to the fore here, (as if they weren't already). Mary Chapin Carpenter should never, ever be pigeonholed as a country artist. This is a masterpiece of singer-songwriting talent. It is barely country at all, let's be honest.
Why Walk When You Can Fly is a low-key opener - melodic and haunting. Mary rocks out on House Of Cards, which surely "borrows" the guitar riff from Bruce Springsteen's Two Hearts. There is actually quite a lot of Springsteen-esque material on this album. It is probably Mary's most "rock" album, although there is still some much quieter, gentler stuff on here too. Stones In The Road, the title track, is a beautiful song, looking back to childhood in Mary's usual wry, wise and somewhat solemn way. It has a lovely piano break in the middle too.  A Keeper For Every Flame has Mary going all Bruce in some ways. It is an excellent, insistent but catchy rock song. Tender When I Want To Be could also be straight off The River too, with slight Tex-Mex hints of The Mavericks too in places. Shut Up And Kiss Me follows in the footsteps of The Bug and I Feel Lucky from the previous album - barroom country bluesy rock. The Last Word begins with an almost Lynyrd Skynyrd-style guitar riff and is a slow, shuffling rock number. In many ways, this is Mary's "heaviest" album, if there is such a thing. 

The End Of My Pirate Days is a piano-driven sombre but gently-delivered sad song, while, on every MCC album, there is also one huge tear-jerker. This album's one is the heartbreaking John Doe No. 24  - a tragic, deeply moving tale from the past enhanced by some simply gorgeous soprano saxophone, from Branford Marsalis, no less. There is not much I can say except to listen to the song. The atmosphere created by Mary's lyrics is just breathtaking. You just have to take a minute after it finishes to snap yourself back to the present. I find the song so unbearably emotional I can barely listen to it, to be honest. "While I drew breath no-one missed me, so they won't on the day that I cease...". That line is often in my head. Come on man, pull yourself together.

Jubilee rouses things back with a big, passionate, vaguely Celtic-sounding drinkalong song. It sounds mournfully Irish to me, for some reason. Van Morrison could deliver the song well, I think. Or Deacon Blue, too, thinking about it. 
Outside Looking In is another mid-paced riffy rock number with some great guitar bits on it. Where Time Stands Still is a haunting, vocal and piano number, while This Is Love is a big chorus closer to an album which I have to say doesn't move me quite in the way that some of MCC's other albums do, but then again, they are almost impossible to live up to, and this is still a good album. Mary doesn't do bad albums.

A Place In The World (1996)

This is probably the last album in the first phase of Mary Chapin Carpenter's career. It would be five years until her next one, and although that one, Time*Sex*Love is an upbeat, rock offering, there has always been, for me, a feeling that this one was a transitional album, the last of the lively country rock outings. The previous album, Stones In The Road has started to show hints of the wise, observational, sensitive lyrics that would dominate her post 2000 output, but this one took a last opportunity to go back to the punchy but melodic, guitar-driven country rock of Come On Come On and Shooting Straight In The Dark. A lot of the songs are romantic in theme, but enriched by MCC's by now typical lovable cynicism. Mary has always had an ear for a catchy melody and an instinct for a killer lyric. While this is not my favourite of her albums, there is still some good stuff on here.

While there is still quite a bit of reflective mature country folk on the album, plenty of room is also made for hook-laden, radio friendly country rock too. It is far more of a lively album than a mournful one.                 

Keeping The Faith is a delightfully riffy number, with some Stonesy guitar and cowbell lines and a strong vocal from MCC, proving that she can rock when she wants to. Post-2000, she really wouldn't do much like this anymore. The track vaguely reminds me of Mott The Hoople's Midnight Lady, a long forgotten single from 1971. Hero In Your Hometown is a slice of MCC classic country rock and very typical of her material in the mid nineties. I Can See It Now slows down the pace, but only a little, as it still has an infectious melody, with a clear, seductive vocal and clear acoustic and drum backing. I Want To Be Your Girlfriend is a tongue-in-cheek poppy rocker, full of jangly and appealing guitar. It is very much the essence of MMC during this period. These are songs written and sung by a woman in her late mid-late thirties, full of supposed angst over relationships but quite a lot of gentle humour and self-deprecation too.

Let Me In Your Heart 
is a joyful, Memphis-style horns-driven soulful number, a bit like U2's Angel Of Harlem. The tranquil What If We Went To Italy has Mary visiting her popular subject of travel, particularly to Europe. It is nice to hear an American singing with such a feel for Europe. The track features some typically Italian accordion and mandolin. That's Real has a nice mid-pace twangy guitar riff and solid rock beat and echoes of some of the material on Shooting Straight In The Dark. It is a slightly sad song, despite its chugging rhythm. It reminds me of Bruce Springsteen's early nineties stuff in places. Ideas Are Like Stars is a slow, acoustic and beautiful song. Naked To The Eye rides in on an infectious riff and strong vocal. It is full of hooks, in the melody, verses and chorus. Again, there is something Springsteen-esque about it. Sudden Gift Of Fate is gentle and tender, beautifully sung. The Better To Dream Of You returns to that archetypal MCC rock sound, with another eminently singable chorus. A Place In The World is the moving closer MCC often gives us on her albums - a poignant, reflective number that would not be out of place on her more recent, mature albums. In conclusion, while I like and admire the later material MCC has put out in her fifties and sixties for their sadness and sensitivity, sometimes you just can't beat these 1987-1996 albums for their sheer joie de vivre and carefree but intelligent country rock.

Time * Sex * Love (2001)

This is probably my least favourite Mary Chapin Carpenter album ( I have them all), largely because of the bombastic, typically early 2000s production, which means you have to turn it down to appreciate it (usually one wants to turn things up) and also because I feel the songs, on the whole, don't quite cut the mustard. It is very much a transitional album between the rousing country rock of the previous output and the wise, reflective material of subsequent albums. I feel Mary didn't quite know what she wanted to achieve with this album or where she was in her life. It is an album of someone whose younger days are behind them, but the placid wisdom of later years has yet to arrive. Furthermore, as with many albums post-2000, it is way too long, at nearly seventy-four minutes, and loses artistic effect because of it. For some, it is seem as MCC's Sgt. Pepper, her meisterwerk, and that has to be acknowledged when assessing it.

Whenever You're Ready starts with a slow, atmospheric bit of Bruce Hornsby-esque piano before a chugging acoustic and drum steady beat kicks in and Mary's instantly recognisable, confident voice arrives. The powerful "la-la-la" chorus it is bit incongruous compared to the rest of the song. There is some good lead guitar and bass on here beneath the blustering production. Simple Life has understated verses about middle age and then it blasts into an almost Oasis-like chorus. Again, it doesn't fit with the rest of the song. Swept Away is a potentially effective ballad ruined by a sonorous bass line. Now I love bass, but this is just out of place. There is just no need for it on this song, certainly not as dominating as it is. So many artists-recordings fell into this mega-bass backing trap in this period. Slave To The Beauty is the most instantly recognisable MCC song so far, but somehow, once again the production is all wrong. This time, would you believe, the voice is muffled and too low down in the mix. What do I know, however, this is obviously how Mary wanted it so who am I to criticise it. I am just writing it as I hear it, in comparison to other albums. The string production on this track is also very similar to that which Bruce Springsteen would use on his Working On A Dream in 2009.

Maybe World starts like a Beach Boys-Mamas And The Papas tribute and progresses into an appealing song which is again somewhat let down by its overloud chorus. There are late sixties Beatles influences on here too, maybe inspired by the fact that the album was recorded in George Martin's AIR studios in London. 
What Was It Like is a sombre, reflective piano and vocal ballad. Once again, a thumping bass backing proves to be an unwelcome visitor half way through.  King of Love is one of the album's best offerings - an evocative Tom Petty-ish slow pace rock song. That backing is still there - deal with it, it's here to stay on this album. There is lovely violin solo on this track, however. In many places this is a beautiful song. This Is Me Leaving You provides a return to that angst-ridden, relationship gone wrong, country rock of the mid-nineties. It is the most archetypal MCC so far. as a fan of the previous albums, it is one of my favourites. 

Someone Else's Prayer is a lovely, moving ballad. This one is also up there in the top few songs. The quality continues on the sombre, thoughtful The Dreaming Road. It is as if MCC has suddenly stopped trying to give us big, contemporary, stadium-style choruses and reverts to what she knows best - moving songs with great lyrics about travel and relationships. Alone But Not Lonely is also an understated, quiet, reflective number. The rock is back with the rousing, cynical The Long Way Home, which is my favourite on the album. Lyrically, Mary is back on the old career woman observational theme. In The Name Of Love is also an upbeat, rousing number. Late For Your Life is a lovely song on which to close with. I really ought to give this album more of a chance and try and get into more, but over the years since I have owned the album, it has never done it for me. I have to admit that listening to it again, as I write, it is growing on me. It has only taken nearly twenty years.

Between Here And Gone (2004)

In many ways, this is Mary Chapin Carpenter’s most accomplished album. Written in the wake of 9/11 it contains some truly beautiful, emotive, mature and genuinely moving lyrics. It was certainly no country rock album, no tuneful guitar riffs and hooky choruses. Many of the songs are gentle, reflective and sung against a many-textured soundscape. It is packed full of emotion, but it is certainly not brooding or melancholy. It is certainly sad when it needs to be, but it is a sadness of maturity, of acceptance of mortality, of a beed to change but to respect the past. Feelings fly around the album, like swooping birds, they come and go, from song to song and eventually it all fits together in one complete, life-affirming whole. From quite a lot of sadness comes a state of grace, of spiritual, inner fulfilment. All this from a gnarled old punk like me? Yes, for sure.
What Would You Say To Me is a fiddle backed gentle, country-ish slow groove with Mary’s voice just at its peak - melodic, expressive and that unique homeliness that makes you feel as if she is in your room and that you know her. Some lovely laid-back piano and guitar in the middle too. A big, dramatic instrumental and vocal ending lifts you up high. A fine piece of slide-style guitar introduces the lovely Luna's Gone. It has a hook, but it is a gentle hook. No tub thumper or country stomp. My Heaven is one of my favourite songs of hers. A simply beautiful song where Mary ruminates on what it like in Heaven - her own personal Heaven - “Grandma’s  up here and Grandpa too, in a condo with “to die for” views...”. What a line. Also up there is her “childhood dog and Dad’s old chair”. I’m almost in tears just listening to it and writing this. Just one of my favourite songs of all time. No question.

Just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, or any more moving comes Goodnight America, a beautifully sung, low key work of perfection. “I’m driving into Houston on a rain-swept Texas road...”. A gentle piano lifts the melody higher. A song full of character. Another quietly emotional song is Between Here And Gone, sung quietly against a gentle piano and violin backing. It is a song about loss and grief. The whole album moves me greatly. One Small Heart has a slowly shuffling fiddle, slide guitar and drum beat and tender lyrics about “one small heart and a great big soul that’s driving...”. 
Beautiful Racket sees MCC break out her electric guitar and rock out a bit, albeit tunefully as always. Nobody else can make an upbeat, joyous rock song still sound so intrinsically sad. Uplifting yet reflective simultaneously. Some nice lead guitar at the end, almost Springsteenesque. 

Girls Like Me is familiar ground for Mary, exploring her shy, sensitive character and looking back on her younger days, Janis Ian style. River is a big, full, graceful slow rock song with a pounding drum sound and swirling E Street Band-style organ and clunking piano notes. Great guitar too. Mary’s voice is strong and dominating throughout. Then there is Grand Central Station. It is a 9/11 song, but it is no flag-waving call for revenge. It is one man’s story of that day delivered sensitively by Mary Chapin Carpenter. It is impossibly emotive. It is a serious compliment to say Bruce Springsteen could not have written any better song than this.  “Tomorrow I’ll be back there working on the pile....”. Nothing more can be said. A truly mighty song. Shelter From Storms wraps us in Mary’s emotional security again, with another sparsely-backed uplifting lament, if that is not to oxymoronic. Beautiful piano at the end. Elysium is a suitably titled closer for this heavenly-inspired album, an acoustically-driven reflective song that breaks out into a rising semi-chorus, accompanied by some mournful, almost Celtic violin. This is holy music. This was a holy album.

The Calling (2006)

Musically, Mary Chapin Carpenter embraces contemporary “new Nashville” somewhat on this initially muscular album. It is full of solid, powerful, mid-pace rock ballads with the drums and the bass turned up considerably. Lyrically, it is still the same reassuring, wise, sage Mary, however. As I mature through the years, she does too (we are the same age). She has a remarkable way of standing apart from the world and offering  words of wisdom from an almost deified position (for me anyway). She is my oracle. Listening to an MCC an album is an emotional journey. You can’t just put it on in the background. I feel I have been put through thewinfer by the end of the session. I feel it has been cathartic, too, however. Incredibly so.                           

The Calling is a dignified, mid-pace and powerful ballad with Mary’s voice on fine evocative and righteous-sounding form. It rocks. So too, does the pulsating We're All Right. Both these tracks are packed full of those killer hooks she seems to be able to sum up at will. She can also write a bucolic, mournful heartbreaker too. Twilight is definitely one of those, full of magical images about “walking though the gloaming at eventide”Twilight is almost used metaphorically to describe our ageing. MCC has such a marvellous understanding of human life and our fragile existence. I find listening to any of her songs both life-affirming and mournfully philosophical at the same time. The full-bodied rock sound is back on the thumping, riffy but melodic It Must Have HappenedOn And On It Goes is one of those sumptuous slow ballads she does so effortlessly. It has a beautiful bass line underpinning it.

Your Life Story is an upbeat number with a trademark MCC riff circa Come On Come On and Mary singing wryly about life, ageing and the like in the way she does that sounds knowing, experienced and wise, even if she was singing her shopping list. 
Houston is an MCC classic - atmospheric and deeply moving. I can’t get enough of this song. Leaving Song is in the same vein. She is unique in producing songs like this. Wonderful. On With The Song is a rousing anti-nationalist, anti-racist anthem written in tribute to The Dixie Chicks who dared to speak out against such things. This song is more that just that. These days it is positively essential. “This isn’t for you and you know who you are…” Mary sings. God bless her. We need more of her like around. Closer And Closer Apart is a plaintive, piano, bass and vocal haunting ballad. Simply beautiful. As we reach the end of the album, the ambience has turned sadder, more reflective, as if the angry, tub-thumping of On With The Song had made Mary quieter, taking stock of things. Here I Am is another solemn, serious and meaningful song. Why Shouldn't We has a real Springsteen-esque feel in its lyrical refrain. It is magnificently proud in a mature and dignified way. Packed full of zeal and evangelical conviction. Bright Morning Star is a low-key, tender song to see out this supremely sensitive piece of work. I am not an openly religious man. For me, listening to songs like these are as close as I get to a state of grace. All these songs come straight from Mary Chapin Carpenter’s heart, from her very DNA. Listening to this is like a sermon. It is almost spiritual in its effect.

Come Darkness Come Light (2008)
This is quite simply my favourite Christmas album. I am a Mary Chapin Carpenter fan so it goes without saying that I am going to enjoy this, but it really is exceptionally appealing. 

If you are looking for traditional carols or 1950s-style crooners then you won't get them here, apart from a superbly evocative rendition of Once In Royal David's City and a gentle, atmospheric Candlelight Carol. What you get are Mary's attempts to write Christmas songs-carols, not an easy thing to do at all. She manages it extremely impressively, I have to say. It has a great cover too. Her version of Once In Royal David's City is always the first Christmas carol I play every year, around December 20th. It is just lovely. Mary's voice is sumptuous on it, so understated and moving. The same applies to the warming Hot Buttered Rum (what exactly is that, by the way?). Come Darkness Come Light is just so uplifting. It just makes your spirits raise listening to it, although, as with all MCC songs, there is a melancholy hiding just beneath the surface - a knowing, wise sadness and awareness of mortality. 

Christmas Time In The City is full of atmosphere, describing all the shops, the lights and so on, making it sound so magical, whether you are a big Christmas fan or not. The Longest Night Of The Year is such a great song for a dark December night and on Christmas Carol, Mary's very own carol, she recalls getting The BeatlesWhite Album in 1968. MCC has such a skill for expressing nostalgic minutiae, making the mundane seem magical. If you are a bit worn out every year by traditional Christmas musical fare and "party" songs and want to indulge in some genuinely sensitive, alternative Christmas songs, then you may enjoy this. You have to have an open mind, though and leave Mariah Carey, Slade, Bing Crosby and Wham! out in the snow for just a little while as you immerse yourself in this.

The Age Of Miracles (2010)

I have written extensively about Mary Chapin Carpenter in my various reviews of her albums, so at the risk of repeating myself I will briefly say that I admire her work immensely. I consider her to be a singer-songwriter of the highest quality, one of the very best. She is wise, clever, sensitive, expressive, emotive and one thing I really like about her is she grows old with me, the two of us having been born in the same year, 1958. The feelings and emotions she expresses in each album are “age appropriate”.
This album is a little less “new country rock” than parts of The Calling were. There are fewer riffs and more acoustic rhythms, but the drums are still solid, the bass resonant and the piano melodious, as always.
We Traveled So Far and Zephyr are both mid-pace, acoustic but bassy ballads with Mary on reflective form, lyrically, and her confident, steady, mature voice always in control. Both are evocative, melodious songs. I Put My Ring Back On is a short, vibrant riffy and upbeat number that harks back to the sort of material she did a lot of in the mid-nineties. Holding Up The Sky is a gentle, solemn ballad featuring some quality, melodic guitar and another thoughtful vocal. The whole album’s approach is one of subtlety and sensitivity, of maturity and understanding. 4 June 1989 is an evocative song about the Tianenmen Square protests in China sung from the point of view of a young soldier charged with clearing the protesters. I Was A Bird is another gentle melody as indeed is the beautiful, haunting Mrs Hemingway, a lovely narrative tale about the author’s wife. It is most atmospheric with its lyrics about sailors in bars and living in Parisian garrets.

I Have A Need For Solitude is a rumbling slow burner, with more thoughtful lyrics plus some great background guitar, and What You Look For is another throwback to the country rock sound of the mid-nineties. These musical pieces of nostalgia are pretty rare, though, and this album will not resonate much with the fans from the Down At The Twist And Shout days. This is a mature album by a mature artist. This is perfectly reflected in the enigmatic, tender Iceland. The Age Of Miracles has a committed-sounding MCC singing hopefully and knowingly over one of those classic MCC slow guitar and piano-driven tunes. The Way I Feel is a rockier, vibrant number upon which to end what is quite a low-key, reflective album.

Ashes And Roses (2012)

This is probably the most sensitive, personal and possibly self-analytical album from the genuine songwriting talent that is the wonderful Mary Chapin Carpenter. It is such a moving piece of work, though, that I find I can only listen to it if I feel emotionally indulgent.
Transcendental Reunion is a beautiful opener with melodic, expressive verses and a catchy upbeat refrain with Mary on strident, confident vocal form. This album has Carpenter speaking directly from her heart, as opposed to telling narrative tales about other people’s perspectives. What To Keep And What To Throw Away is a heartbreaking song about the aftermath of a divorce. The lyrics could also apply to the period after someone has died. It is a remarkably sensitive song, one that very few songwriters could express as movingly as Mary Chapin Carpenter does here. She really is a most unique, wise and understanding songwriter. The Swords We Carried is another song about betrayal, trust and loss. There is so much emotional power in these beautiful acoustic guitar, piano and bass-backed songs, the tinkling piano added like tears as we reflect on fate, bad luck, fortitude and wisdom. Another Home, with its ethereal vocals over a gently picked acoustic guitar, is just so entrancing.

As I said at the beginning, this is Mary Chapin Carpenter’s most intensely personal album. It is no upbeat, good time album. It is one of maturity, ageing, sadness, reality, grief, hope and dignity. Yes, above all it is dignified. Quiet, stoic, honest and dignified. Chasing What's Already Gone is a song of nostalgia and acceptance of your own past mistakes. The honesty in some of these songs is remarkable. There is nothing remotely commercial about this material. I’m not sure if MCC is bothered about sales at all, her muse wants her to put this stuff out there and if people like me pick up on it, all the better, but if nobody does, no matter.

“I saw my father in a dream last night, he was smiling and saying “you’re gonna be alright”….”. Lines like that resonate so much with me. I’ve had that same dream.

Learning The World is another immensely moving song about loss and grief. It is a difficult listen, but also a cathartic one.

“Grief rides quietly on the passenger side
Unwanted company on a long, long drive
It turns down the quiet songs and turns up the din
It goes where you go, it's been where you've been….

As you can see from the above words, the song is utterly heartbreaking.

Time for a bit of relief? No chance. I Tried Going West is a bit more powerful, musically, but its message is another one about escape from oneself, from issues one is unable to cope with, Love. betrayal and the like. Some great guitar lifts the song higher, however. Don’t worry, Mary, you’ll make it through eventually. It’ll be a long road though. 
Don't Need Much To Be Happy is her coming out the other side. It is a song of strength and resilience. Soul Companion is a duet with a male singer (not sure who) which again is a song of positivity, both lyrically and musically, with its upbeat melody. Old Love is a tender, tuneful but solemn and poignant song. New Year's Day is just lovely. I cannot express enough the sheer, expressive beauty of some of these songs. Don’t believe me? Just check it out. It is full of stunning images of the simplest human kind. “It’s the folds of summer dresses, the perfume on my wrist, the way you play guitar, like a boxer punches with his fist….”. Great stuff. Fading Away has Mary forgetting her old lover, while Jericho has her considering her future, maybe with someone else, against a solo piano backing. You know I worry for Mary. She should have settled down by now. This has been a difficult listen, like spending an evening listening to a good friend’s relationship problems and patiently trying to be there for them and being happy when they seem to be coming out the other side.

Songs From The Movie (2014)
This is an adventurous album from Mary Chapin Carpenter. Using a large orchestra and cinema soundtrack arranger Vince Mendoza, she performs some of her songs, which are given an often sweeping cinematic backing. Her voice is a quiet one, it is certainly not one that dominates, so thankfully the music is rarely slowed to overpower her. The idea is that it enhances the songs, making them seem as if they were intended for cinematic use. For me, I'm not sure if it works. It is a different project to 2018's re-singing of some of her songs many years later, this is a deliberate attempt to enhance the songs with some cinematic music. I love the songs and will always love them, but this just doesn't quite do it for me, which is highly unusual, because I would normally still love it if I heard Mary Chapin Carpenter gargling mouthwash.
It certainly suits the beautiful Between Here And Gone and Ideas Are Like Stars where the backing just sounds dramatic and beautiful. The Dreaming Road is also given a real cinematic gravitas but, unfortunately, the lovely I Am A Town has all is quiet soul and cadence ripped out of it by a deafening, crashing melodramatic backing. Personally I feel the appeal of Mary Chapin Carpenter's songs lie in their essential quietness, particularly those she has selected on here. Their sensitive tenderness and MCC's often sensual, wise, whispered voice just doesn't need those massive sweeping strings, as if someone is riding over the top of a ridge or a hero is passionately kissing his girl, or we are seeing an aerial shot of the Grand Canyon. I feel her songs are best served by single strings, or a tinkling piano, a gentle moving violin. Their previously understated backing was their strength.

The first movements of the beautiful Only A Dream sees them get it just right and the booming orchestral swell that greets the "twirl me around" line is one of the times that it justifies it. I think this one works. I still prefer the original, though, as I do on all of them. Come On Come On has a fetching percussion sound, but again I feel the big cinematic production takes away the sparse beauty that gave the song its appeal in the first place. Mrs. Hemingway works perfectly, however, because the song is so filmic and evocative in its imagery and the backing on here is considerably subtler. This is one of my favourite cuts on the album. Goodnight America is just a beautiful song, whatever the arrangement and here, again the orchestration does it proud. As I said, I prefer the originals, and while I admire the experiment, and enjoyed some of them, I prefer my MCC at home, not at the movies.

The Things That We Are Made Of (2016)

In 2014, Mary Chapin Carpenter released some of her old songs re-recorded with a movie soundtrack-style orchestra. For me, it didn't really work and I was pleased to see her go back to what she does best on this album, performing her knowing, aware songs over a backing dominated by her acoustic guitar but also by jangly electric guitars and muscular rock drums. The overall atmosphere is a dignified, slow-paced, considered one, however. She is in her sixties now and, as she always does, she gives us the benefit of her life experience on a collection of atmospheric and lyrically beautiful songs. She never lets me down, even after all these years.                              

Something Tamed Something Wild is a pleasantly sensitive but also quite upbeat song, with strummed acoustic guitar and a rock drum backbeat. Mary's voice is, as always, gentle, wise and quietly authoritative. The Middle Ages has Mary looking back on her life, now she has reached middle age. It is a beautiful, mid-pace acoustic number and Mary delivers it perfectly, once again so real, so knowledgeable. One lives out one's life in MCC songs. What Does It Mean To Travel is a solid, slow number that ruminates on airports and travelling. Mary likes air travel imagery. It has appeared in a few recent songs.

Livingstone has MCC's voice in typical evocative form, giving us a sad, thoughtful song. Map Of My Heart reminds me of a Bruce Springsteen song from Working On A DreamMy Lucky Day I think, or maybe something off MagicOh Rosetta is a laid-back, gentle number sung to blues guitarist Sister Rosetta Tharpe. It features an uplifting organ solo in the middle. It brings to mind Mary's Between Here And Gone song from the album of the same name. Deep Deep Down Heart has an affecting backing, but the sentiments are similar to those expressed on most of the album - philosophical, questioning, reflective, nostalgic yet still bravely optimistic. Hand On My Back is the album's most sombre number, but again its words are inspiringly true. The Blue Distance ploughs the same moving furrow, with Mary again sounding wearily observational yet, as she aways does, coming across as courageously positive within all that almost intrinsic sadness. Note On A Windshield is a sad song about Mary leaving her number on a potential romantic partner's windshield, but it gets washed away in the rain. The note gets used as a metaphor for their "ships in the night" relationship. Archetypal MCC. The Things That We Are Made Of returns to the stark melody of Hand On My Back and The Blue Distance

The final two tracks, Between The Wars and the valedictory 88 Constellations, sincere and beautiful as they are, are probably a couple of these type of tracks too many for me. This has been a lovely album, but after an hour of it, it is time to get up, get some fresh air, take stock and maybe listen to something else. That is no way a criticism, just a reaction. I'd still choose Mary Chapin Carpenter as my ideal dinner party guest.

Sometimes Just The Sky (2018)

Mary Chapin Carpenter has decided, on this album, to revisit some of her old songs, as she turns sixty. And why not? I had a bit of trepidation about the project, however, but I needn’t have worried. Mary never lets me down.

One Small Heart now has a great swirling organ sound and crashing guitars that enhances it considerably from its starker original. Heroes And Heroines, originally from her debut album all those year ago, now has a marvellous big, pounding drum sound. What Does It Mean To Travel and I Have A Need For Solitude are not significantly different - still quietly acoustic and tender. The same applies to Jericho. All are beautifully sung here, though. The Moon And St. Christopher has another bigger, fuller drum sound, more haunting orchestration and Mary’s voice even more mournful and evocative. Simply beautiful. I have always really loved this song so much. Thankfully, I still love this version. It would have been a shame if it had spoilt it.

Superman is a lovely, atmospheric slow new new song, with a rich, deep drum in the background and an ethereal, whispered vocal. The other new track, Sometimes Just The Sky, is a quiet, thoughtful ballad, very typical of her later work. The slightly more lively Naked To The Eye is given a folky, country violin makeover and his a real Springsteen-esque feel to its chorus. Rhythm Of The Blues is even slower than its original, with a deeper, more solid drum sound once more and Mary’s voice is now no longer that of the spokeswoman for all thirty-somethings that she was when she wrote the song. She is now a grand old lady, full of wisdom and comfort. But she’s still our grand old lady. This Is Love now has a shuffling, percussive slowed-down beat, with a fetching, emotive violin and Mary’s voice is gruffer, but more world-weary, less vibrant or triumphant than the original. This is a voice of sixty years’ experience. Just lovely - it brings tears to my eyes. The Calling is powerful, strident and confident - full of melodic violin, sharp guitar and pumping drums. Mary’s voice is just gorgeous. It always has been, and nothing has changed, save an octave or so deeper, actually making her sound more profound. This Shirt is another of my all-time favourites. Again, it is given a fuller, firmer backing, augmented by a beautiful folky violin. It still moves me tremendously. I know Mary’s old shirt as well as I know my own. She’s been with me for thirty years too. 


  1. I've been listening to Between Here and Gone - it's very pretty.

  2. That's a good start. It is also very moving in places.