Mary Chapin Carpenter
The Dirt and the Stars
It feels weirdly wrong to approach a Mary Chapin Carpenter album with caution these days. Over the past couple of decades, the narrative surrounding her work – even here at Country Universe – is that her thoughts are still as sharply poetic and thoughtful as they were in her ‘90s heyday (and really, it’s a testament to the time period that thoughtful music actually had a chance to succeed at country radio then) but often is supported by so-so music, often lacking in instrumental variety, tempo, or both.
Truthfully, that’s about where new album The Dirt and the Stars falls, too. It’s an easier, more accessible listen than much of her most recent work, opting for a looser feel and not feeling as relentlessly bleak, even if it still sounds like it at points.
And that may be the easiest starting point, mostly because, as usual, Carpenter tackles heavy themes with her post-mainstream work. It’s clear that certain tracks like “Asking For A Friend,” “All Broken Hearts Break Differently” and the tribute to frequent collaborator John Jennings, “Old D-35,” are aiming for higher emotional stakes than usual, which is why it’s equally frustrating that the compositions and production only rarely seem to match it, often cycling back through relatively predictable Americana-inspired folk progressions. Granted, for an artist like Carpenter, the music at this point supports the poetry and not the other way around, but while it doesn’t drag it down, it doesn’t elevate it either.
The thing is, there’s a few moments where Carpenter takes a few chances, and it only serves to highlight how much better this could all come across. “Nocturne” is a two-pronged track, capturing a father quietly and desperately hoping he’s not repeating his own father’s mistakes raising his own family, casting a heavy amount of subtext, all while capturing the lonesomeness and stillness of the nighttime air with the lullaby-esque arrangement and synthetic elements that never feel overbearing. It’s quietly subtle, but it’s deceptively bleak. And considering too many of these tracks feature overly long, gratuitous instrumental outros, it’s surprising that the one that works best is the understated electric solo that leads out the title track, if only to capture the frustrations of the character’s realization of faded hopes and dreams. Here, it’s bleak but damn-near cathartic, and it proves that one doesn’t need bare-bones arrangements to make their work sound stunning.
Otherwise, there’s a melancholy to the low-strummed acoustics of “Farther Along and Further In” and “All Broken Hearts Break Differently” that I wish was emphasized more, and if you’re going to go all in with a political track on “American Stooge,” at least give it some firepower to support the bite of the content, because that feels like a real wasted opportunity.
Of course, that’s a good segue into the content itself, which is the main selling point anyway. Truthfully, the themes are solid, but I’m left wishing Carpenter expanded upon them with better details, or just not-so-vague ones. If I had to detect a thematic arc, I’d say it’s to inspire optimism and appreciate the little details, which, with this year and all, probably is why this album as a whole has grown on me with recent listens. But I’m left revisiting the two aforementioned highlights – “Nocturne” and the title track – and wishing Carpenter had opted for grander storytelling to support her greater points. “It’s OK To Be Sad” and “Where The Beauty Is” are fine, but a bit too on-the-nose. Again, too, while both of them opt for brighter tones, without the added weight, they don’t ring with much gusto. And the second-person framing of tracks like “Secret Keepers” and “Asking For A Friend” is always a lazy framing device to foster a connection for this sort of inspirational material. Again, it’s all accessible, and there’s probably something to be said for how the understated atmosphere oddly enough works for this year, but like with most Carpenter albums of the past decade or so, I’m left appreciating it more than I am liking it.
Recommended tracks: “Between the Dirt and the Stars,” “Nocturne,” “All Broken Hearts Break Differently”
Listening to the Music
It always amuses that the immediate starting point when discussing Zephaniah OHora’s music is how it’s made by someone from New York City who indulges in a Countrypolitan-flavored sonic palette, as if we’ve seriously gone that far with the regionalism argument within country music. Of course, New York City was one of three major cities – along with Chicago and Los Angeles – that was vital to country music’s development in the years before World War II, so perhaps OHora’s throwback aesthetic – even though it emulates a later time period – is fitting.
I just wish I was more of a fan. I heard the appeal with his debut, This Highway, and I hear it here on Listening to the Music, especially in its larger embrace of Bakersfield tones while still keeping the lusher Countrypolitan aesthetic intact. But for as much as OHora draws vocal comparisons to Merle Haggard from, well … seemingly everyone, he lacks a distinctive warmth in his delivery that often leaves me numb. I can’t tell if it’s just him not quite nailing the style correctly or if he’s still growing into his voice on what is only his sophomore release, but it’s been a persistent problem that makes a lot of this material blend together for me. He’s a greater singer often relying too much on pure subtlety.
He’s best on the more pensive, reflective tracks, especially when he’s channeling his love for music on the title track or playing things a bit looser on “You Make It Easy to Love Again,” but other tracks either require a more delicate touch or stronger bite that just doesn’t fluctuate.
Granted, that’s also a note on the instrumentation and production – Neal Casal’s final production on record, for the record – which features a healthier variety in tempo compared to OHora’s debut, but doesn’t feature a lot of variety or color to the instrumental mix. The ballads feature a healthy dosage of pedal steel, warm acoustics, strings and hints of reverb, and the upbeat honky-tonkers crank up the electric guitars and throw in some piano and percussion for good measure, but lack the rougher textures that could have helped them stand out a bit more. And after hearing “We Planned to Have It All,” I was hoping for more fiddle to strengthen the overall melodic presentation.
But I think the biggest reason why this isn’t clicking for me comes through in the content, where it’s clear OHora’s writing is intentionally old-fashioned to suit the sonic palette, and though the titles and themes certainly aim for grand stakes – seriously, they don’t make song titles like “When I’ve No More Tears To Cry” – the details just aren’t there. “Black & Blue” is a kiss-off track that’s too one-sided for me to connect with more, especially when the tones are a bit too bright and feel out of place with the track’s sentiment. On that note, there’s also “Time Won’t Take Its Time,” which, admittedly, is pretty fun for what it is – a boozy, low-stakes take on the blues (complete with an ending yodel, no less), but there’s a darker framing to the actual details of a downward spiral here that get tossed aside in favor of keeping it loose, and there’s a melancholy I wish got emphasized more.
Outside of “All-American Singer,” which is a sloppy attempt at trying to bridge all parts of the political divide and losing the plot very quickly along the way, none of the writing is bad, per se, but it does feel fairly basic. “We Planned to Have It All” sets up a grim situation of a man who doesn’t get to plan the life he wanted with his significant other, but without any details of what actually happened, it all feels overwrought and oversold, which is also how I’d describe a good chunk of this album. Again, I see why it works for its target audience; I just wouldn’t include myself in it.
Recommended tracks: “Listening to the Music,” “You Make It Easy to Love Again,” “Time Won’t Take Its Time”
Western Swing & Waltzes and Other Punchy Songs
Colter Wall’s latest studio album continues his penchant for capturing the wild spirit of days long past – “days long past” meaning ones in the 19th century, mind you. But while the production swap of Dave Cobb to Wall himself reflects a more confident offering overall in Western Swing & Waltzes and Other Punchy Songs, further bolstered by the addition of Wall’s backing band for more instrumental variety, it’s a less cohesive offering than his previous one, Songs of the Plains.
It’s an important distinction, too, given that this album largely feels like a sloppy second helping of cowboy tunes new and old. Granted, that the covers blend in nicely with Wall’s own material is a noticeable positive for this effort, but there’s something too messy about this album’s execution. Sure, it’s not as minimalist as Wall’s previous efforts, but there was something to be said in how Cobb’s production not only lent Wall’s voice enough room to command the space, but also never forgot how empty the Canadian midwest could feel. Subtle, for sure, but enough to respect the tunes and let them ride on their own.
Here, sure, there’s added bits of fiddle and saloon piano this time around, coupled with dobro accents and the usual echoing pedal steel and acoustics. But they’re never used to support a decent melody or old-fashioned rollicking groove, instead just opting to take up space and, on the “Diamond Joe” cover, feel sloppily mixed as a whole. And that’d just be a small nitpick if it weren’t for the other bizarre production choice here, that being to set some of these tracks up with only Wall and a microphone for something of a live feel. Instead of the immediate warmth that may come with, say, sitting around a campfire and swapping these stories around, it’s a clumsy misstep that frames way too many of these songs. And that it constantly switches between the live pickups and more refined arrangements only shows a jarring inconsistency with this project as a whole.
Again, too, when I have Songs of the Plains to return to for examples of this sound done right, it’s not exactly a good step forward. Then again, speaking as someone who prefers the Tom Waits-meets-Johnny Cash southern-Gothic stylings of his Imaginary Appalachia album, that’s been the case with Wall’s music for a while now, at least for me. But judging from “Houlihans at the Holiday Inn,” it’s pretty clear that the music-making process hasn’t gone as expected for Wall, and that he’s more content with his ranching lifestyle more than he’ll ever be with stardom of any variety. That’s an understandable sentiment and would have made for a better thematic arc than the esoteric tales of regional pride that can carry an ugly elitist streak to them, especially on “Talkin’ Prairie Boy.”
So for what this album is, it’ll suit the target audience fine, but the covers outpace the originals here, and I’ve always felt that Wall’s original stories lack the extra verse or detail to carry them through, the most noticeable example being “Henry and Sam.” And for as much as that lack of melody feels intentional in truly establishing these songs as old, that the most potent song here is the “Cowpoke” cover, with the harmonica beautifully supporting the melody and capturing that lonesome spirit better than anything else here, says it all in how unfinished most of this album feels. The big selling point is always going to be Wall’s deep, bellowing voice, but there’s very little to it in the way of actual character, and he’s always been a shade too reserved for his own good anyway. The title track and “Rocky Mountain Rangers” are pretty fun and provide the most punch of the originals, and the “Big Iron” cover is tastefully done, but this is a monotonous listen that doesn’t provide much of an overall payoff.
Recommended tracks: “Cowpoke,” “Rocky Mountain Rangers,” “Big Iron”