Tuesday, 6 October 2020

Mary Chapin Carpenter - Mary's Land (1987-1996)

Hometown Girl (1987)

A Lot Like Me/Other Streets And Other Towns/Hometown Girl/Downtown Train/Family Hands/A Road Is Just A Road/Come On Home/Waltz/Just Because/Heroes And Heroines    
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 WaitsDowntown 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)

How Do/Something Of A Dreamer/Never Had It So Good/Read My Lips/This Shirt/Quittin' Time/Down In Mary's Land/Goodbye Again/Too Tired/Slow Country Dance/It Don't Bring You     
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)

Going Out Tonight/Right Now/The More Things Change/When She's Gone/Middle Ground/Can't Take Love For Granted/Down At The Twist And Shout/Halley Came To Jackson/What You Didn't Say/You Win Again/The Moon And St. Christopher    

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)

The Hard Way/He Thinks He'll Keep Her/The Rhythm Of The Blues/I Feel Lucky/The Bug/Not Too Much Too Ask/Passionate Kisses/Only A Dream/I Am A Town/Walking Through Fire/I Take My Chances/Come On Come On     

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)

Why Walk When You Can Fly/House Of Cards/A Keeper For Every Flame/Tender When I Want To Be/Shut Up And Kiss Me/The Last Word/The End Of My Pirate Days/John Doe No. 24/Jubilee/Outside Looking In/Where Time Stands Still/This Is Love  

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)

Keeping The Faith/Hero In Your Hometown/I Can See It Now/I Want To Be Your Girlfriend/Let Me In To Your Heart/What If We Went To Italy/That's Real/Ideas Are Like Stars/Naked To The Eye/Sudden Gift Of Fate/The Better To Dream Of You/A Place In The World      

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.

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