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Synthesized production undermines Chapman’s talent

By Chris Cooper

There’s this thing that can happen when you research an artist for a review. I’m not sure what the technical term for it is, but it goes something like this: you find that many people (usually well respected peers, in this case Rodney Crowell or Todd Snider) have incredibly good things to say about the artist and their latest album.

You may also uncover that a ton of other wildly successful musicians have covered songs by this artist and had even more success apparently. The bio will be chock full of quite impressive accomplishments and anecdotes. I guess what the thing turns out to be is a feeling of mystification, confusion and maybe some anger at the fact that what you’re hearing on the album just doesn’t seem to line up with what’s been said, the hype and all. Weird.

Marshall Chapman’s had a long and critically acclaimed career, back to her first album, Me, I’m Feelin’ Free in 1977. She’s consistently released an album every few years until ’96 and then took nearly a decade off before returning with her latest, Mellowicious!

Not being an expert on Chapman’s music, I can’t really hazard a guess at what might’ve happened, but as another reviewer pointed out, one problem might be that there’s only two credits for the majority of the record: Chapman and keyboardist Mike Lawler. This would seem to indicate that much of the instrumentation is canned or produced on a synthesizer. This is rarely a good thing when it comes to more organic music like country, blues and rock.

The first teeth-gritting moment comes about 10 seconds into the opening track “Have A Little Faith.” Where one would typically expect to hear a pedal steel, lap steel or just some kind of slide guitar, you get the synthesized version of the instrument. In this case it’s this tinkly, pitch bent little atrocity that does nothing but set the wrong tone for the song and the album as a whole.

The choice to produce the album in this way may have been a budgetary concern, but when everything but the acoustic guitar and the vocal is being created by a synthesizer, the music suffers the horrible fate of sounding like a glossy home recording from 1986. If that was the goal, then it’s been a true success.

Sadly, I don’t think that was the sound Chapman was going for.

And it’s a shame, because as mellow as the title suggests the songs to be, they have so much more potential as strong, classic country pop tunes. Though she was the predecessor of artists like Chrissie Hynde and Lucinda Williams, it seems that several of her songs have fared better in the hands of other artists, and many of the songs on this album have that potential.

“I Fell In Love Again This Morning” would be amazing delivered by an artist like Lucinda, with the grit and attitude she could bring to it. But here, it’s smothered in phony horns and strings, devoid of anything even resembling dirt, and it suffers terribly. For what it’s worth, if you can imagine “Karaoke Prozac Country” as a sub-genre, Mellowicious! could be the defining album.

Yes, Marshall Chapman can write great songs, and the album isn’t totally miserable. When the production is minimal and some of the gooey digital layers get peeled back, as on “Bright Red Sunset,” it works so much better. The same goes for “I Love Everybody (I Love Everything)” where REAL LIVE musicians accompany her, giving the tune a lazy groove reminiscent of JJ Cale’s work.

But things go south again in “Trouble With A Capital T” where the fake brass section collides with the fake guitar and bass in a whirlwind that can only be described as... fake-o-licious. In so many cases, the quality of the writing just can’t rise above the lameness of the production.

I don’t know who to suggest this CD to, and I really can’t figure what the target audience for it might be. I imagine diehard fans of her work will be chomping at the bit for a copy of Mellowicious! and I hope it lives up to their expectations. Chapman’s ’04 live release Live! at the Bitter End seems a much better context in which to hear some of these tunes. As it is, Mellowicious! is an unusual listening experience, to say the least, and doesn’t seem to do an artist like Marshall Chapman the justice she deserves. 2 stars, respectfully.

(Chris Cooper is a guitar teacher at In Your Ear Music Emporium in Sylva. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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