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Wednesday, 07 March 2007 00:00

Chapin channels something powerful in The Calling

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In 1992 Mary Chapin Carpenter released Come On, Come On, and though it’s a little hazy as to how I wound up with a copy, the album has since remained one of my favorite collections of songs and performances.

 

Maybe it was a need for something that felt a little more real than what I was listening to at the time, but songs like “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her” and Carpenter’s stunning reading of Lucinda Williams’ “Passionate Kisses” struck me as some of the most beautiful examples of taste and arrangement I’d ever heard. And her longtime collaborator, guitarist John Jennings, showed that fantastic guitar playing could be based more on understatement and atmosphere, melody and tone than the need to pull out every trick in the book.

Many, many years later I found myself honored with an advance copy of Carpenter’s new album, The Calling, and though the years pass and artists grow and change, all those magical things she possessed as a songwriter back then are in full focus now, and potent as ever. Her voice has dropped in timbre a little, which actually serves to increase the sense of intimacy she’s always held as a trump card over similar “country/folk” artists.

Spin the song “Twilight,” with its rippling arpeggios and echoed accompaniment, and revel in the sound of a seasoned singer/songwriter whispering only to you, right in your ear.

“It Must Have Happened” rings and chimes and rocks like something Buckingham and Nicks could’ve only hoped to achieve, and it’s a reminder that all this time Carpenter really was ahead of the curve, knowing when to replace the twang with jangle and grit when needed. Though labeling her as just a “country” artist never, ever fit her very well, one thing she does exemplify time and again is the tradition of writing the great big hook, that mercurial combination of notes and words that get in your head and stay.

And there are more hooks here than you can shake your whole tackle box at — the title track, “Your Life Story,” and “Why Shouldn’t We” come to mind, but nearly every track has something unique and powerful to offer.

Carpenter never skimps on content, either. It’s tough to find a way to say it without wrapping the description in all too familiar cliché’s, but she’s got a knack for channeling something so totally human and grounded in her stories that you really have no choice but to fall back and let them envelop you.

Even when she’s delivering something more politically minded, as in “On With The Song,” Carpenter’s conviction is married with that remarkable power to sound like a close friend, and she doesn’t come off as preachy — just pissed off. Few songwriters can portray the somber reality of a crumbling relationship as well as she does on “Closer Apart,” which floats her vocal over sparse piano and dreamy swells of electric guitar and pedal steel.

The Calling might make huge waves on the charts and radio — considering the fact that Come On, Come On earned the artist a total of seven hit singles, it’s quite possible. But it almost doesn’t matter whether “everybody” embraces The Calling or not — those that do (few or many) will be rewarded with a lush, inspiring and thoughtful set of tunes from one of the most gifted songwriters on the planet, and that in itself is almost more than you can hope for when you plunk down the cash for a new CD. Excellent.

(Chris Cooper can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. )

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