Mary Chapin Carpenter could be considered an example of the rare artist who releases her best and most significant work right in the midst of her commercial heyday, or whose music might have even benefited from considering the ever-present concerns of what could be grasped by mainstream audiences. In the years since Carpenter’s hot streak ended – She hasn’t had a Top 40 hit since 1999's “Almost Home” – she seems to have lost sight of the need to bring her thoughts down to an accessible, digestible level.
If you’ve at all been following Mary Chapin Carpenter’s output over the past decade, it should come as little surprise that her new album Ashes and Roses often wants for variance in melody and tempo. Likewise, Carpenter and producer Matt Rollings back each track with only slight variations on the same soft acoustic coffeehouse folk arrangement. Still, the greater issue is that the album offers little reward for the listeners who do take a closer listen, and dig deeper into the lyrical sentiments presented.
There’s hardly a memorable hook to be found on this album, be it lyrical or melodic, which means there’s little to help the material make any lasting impression on the memory. Opener “Transcendental Reunion” has a melodic structure that essentially consists of the same progression of notes repeated endlessly throughout, offering a weak listener payoff. Even when Carpenter hones in on a potentially interesting idea for a song, the treatment feels vague and underdeveloped. One such example is “What to Keep and What to Throw Away,” which ineffectively attempts to chronicle the end of a relationship through a one-dimensional series of instructions delivered without any palpable emotional intensity. “Don’t Need Much Too Be Happy” trades in a somewhat similar variation on Carpenter’s 1993 Lucinda Williams-penned hit, the superior “Passionate Kisses,” but lacks the same layers of character development in its list of polite requests for things the narrator needs. The James Taylor duet “Soul Companion fails to reach any greater crescendo than a repetition of the title phrase along with a hollow refrain of “I will meet you there.” (Where?) The fact that Carpenter’s voice scarcely rises above a whisper throughout the set doesn’t do anything to offset the weightlessness of the material, instead adding to the overall dreariness of the record as a whole.
The set’s best-written song is “Learning the World,” which is a wistful meditation on the grieving process – possibly inspired in part by Carpenter’s experience in dealing with the death of her father. It opens with an interesting personification of grief as if “rides quietly on the passenger side, unwanted company on a long, long drive,” though it still includes the odd throwaway line “I wish I were the wind, so that I could blow away.” Carpenter also connects more solidly with “I Tried Going West,” which benefits from a stronger semblance of narrative and attention to detail. Even the songs that are more satisfying lyrically still suffer greatly from lack of heed to the importance of melody, such that listening to all fourteen of the album’s tracks still feels more like a chore than anything else. By the time you’re only a few tracks in, you’ll find it awfully hard to resist flinging around the word boring.
Of course, many similar criticisms could be, and were, leveled against Carpenter’s previous set, 2010’s The Age of Miracles. But even then, Miracles included several scattered melodic mood-breakers such as the singles “I Put My Ring Back On” and “The Way I Feel,” which is something that Ashes and Roses cannot claim.
At this point, it’s easy to wonder if Carpenter will ever make a truly great album again. It’s extremely disheartening to see such direction being taken by an artist who made such fine music back in her day, with her career-best effort Stones In the Road ranking among the greatest country albums ever recorded. Ashes and Roses simply lacks the wit, insight, vigor, and substantial connection to everyday life that were the hallmarks of Carpenter’s best work, making it feel less like any form of forward artistic progression, and more like the spinning of wheels.
The countdown continues, with appearances by popular new artists joined by a pair of nineties veterans.
The Best Singles of 2010, Part 2: #30-#21
Roll With It Easton Corbin
It’s easy to overlook Corbin’s second single as just another breezy summer tune, but it stands above the rest, thanks to its near-perfect execution. From the spirited delivery to the skillful handling of otherwise trite phrases –like the title phrase and “it won’t be no thang”— “Roll With It” makes a fresh, invigorating case for shedding everyday troubles and, well, rolling with it. – Tara Seetharam
I Put My Ring Back On Mary Chapin Carpenter
“I Put My Ring Back On” is a throwback to the sounds of Mary Chapin Carpenter’s glory days on the charts. It’s catchy with a message of relational perseverance. As a result, it’s one of the two most memorable songs on her latest album. – Leeann Ward
Who Are You When I’m Not Looking Blake Shelton
Blake Shelton has a strong voice, but it’s most expressive when he dials it back enough to allow the sensitivity to cut through. Exhibit A: “Who Are You When I’m Not Looking.” As one of the beautifully understated productions of the year, he loves everything that he knows about his woman, therefore, he can’t help but imagine and wonder about what he’s not seeing. – LW
Put You in a Song Keith Urban
Creating hooky pieces of ear candy is one of Urban’s defining talents, and the lead single from his November release is further proof. Blessedly, it’s devoid of the distracting electronic instrumentation that has lately plagued his recordings, which makes for one of Urban’s cleanest releases in recent years. – LW
American Honey Lady Antebellum
Look, I still don’t know what American honey is, and I’m guessing you don’t either. What I do know is this: Hillary Scott’s performance is layered, vulnerable and desperate – a perfect encapsulation of the wave of nostalgia that finds you in your early 20s. Coupled with the wistful melody, it’s enough to override the wacky metaphor and lift the song to one of the most poignant of the year. – TS
A Father’s Love (The Only Way He Knew How) Bucky Covington
This is probably Covington’s best performance to date. The song manages to be sweet without crossing the line to sickeningly cloying. It depicts a father who shows his love through action rather than verbal affirmation, which is something that the son ultimately accepts as just as good. – LW
Playing the Part Jamey Johnson
Something that Jamey Johnson isn’t afraid to do in this radio era of watered down, trite messages is expose himself as less than a perfect human being. Instead, he will sing about drug addiction (“High Cost of Living”) and depression, as we hear in this tale of disappointment that is a result of the crushing disappointment of unattained success. – LW
Fearless Taylor Swift
As a single release, it was little more than an afterthought, the album of the same name having already flexed most of its world-conquering muscles. As a sort of mission-statement album track, though, “Fearless” still rocks, adeptly capturing the jitters and giddiness of young romance and sort of arguing for embracing such sensations while you can. That Swift tells herself at a certain point to “capture it, remember it” suggests she knows there’s more loneliness and disappointment on the flip-side of this one elated moment. – Dan Milliken
She Won’t Be Lonely Long Clay Walker
Ringing with effortless charisma and playful sincerity, the lead single off Walker’s latest album was a welcomed reintroduction to his most beloved qualities. Interestingly, though the song serves as a tribute to his classic 90s sound, it fit snugly –and refreshingly– on country radio. – TS
Only Prettier Miranda Lambert
Lambert exposes the sneaky bitchery lurking behind so much Southern sweetness. Country radio is all like, “Whaaat?” – DM
In theory, Wynonna Judd has the gravitas to pull off a feisty inspirational song like “I Will Stand By You,” the kind that builds on momentum and resolve instead of hope and compassion. And the lyrics, though clichéd, aren’t necessarily enough to kill the song’s spirit – because who better than Wynonna to breathe fire and energy into nondescript lyrics?
Only she doesn’t. Her performance misses the mark on all accounts: she blasts her notes with so much splashy aggression that they can barely find their pitch, and her phrasing is painfully affected (what’s with the varying pronunciations of the word “you”?). Gone is her soulful conviction and unshakeable control; in its place is a voice that begs for a recharge. And then there’s Naomi Judd’s harmony vocals, which manage to be both barely there and glaringly off-key.
The vocals are so off-putting that they almost completely mask the semi-cool arrangement, which weaves in a tinge of Celtic flavoring – a little Mary Chapin Carpenter, a little Keith Urban. Some vocal fine-tuning might have allowed this driving production to make a more powerful impact.
Given that this is The Judds’ first single in over a decade –charity single or not– it’s a shame you have to wonder how many times the ladies went through this in the studio. What’s your guess? I know mine.
Written by Steven Lee Olsen, Robert Ellis Orrall & Angelo Petraglia
A song about finding liberation on the open road shouldn’t put you in danger of falling asleep at the wheel.
I don’t know what’s going on with Mary Chapin Carptenter. She made my favorite album of all-time, Stones in the Road, and it wasn’t particularly upbeat. But the songs were amazingly good. I’m still learning new things from that album a full sixteen years after its release.
With a singer-songwriter cut from the folk cloth, there’s not much left to work with if the song itself isn’t that great. “The Way I Feel” isn’t that great, much like most of what Carpenter’s recorded for her last few albums.
So ultimately, what’s most disappointing about this song is that its mediocrity doesn’t disappoint me. I fully expected it.
And so we come to the end. The top of our list includes a wide range of artists singing a wide range of country music styles. Thematically, these entries are diverse, but what they all have in common is what has always made for great country music. They are all perfectly-written songs delivered with sincerity by the artists who brought them to life.
400 Greatest Singles of the Nineties: #25-#1
Smoke Rings in the Dark Gary Allan
1999 | Peak: #12
Being deeply enamored of someone can make it easy – even appealing – to forfeit your own well-being. This single’s sunny tone reflects the persistent affection running through its protagonist, but its story demonstrates the heartbreak to which such unmeasured selflessness leads. – DM (more…)
The themes of love and loss have permeated country music for as long as it’s been in existence. This second-to-last batch of great nineties hits contains songs that are direct descendants of well-known classics like “Can the Circle Be Unbroken” and “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”, along with a Shania Twain hit that would have made Roba Stanley smile.
400 Greatest Singles of the Nineties: #50-#26
Here’s a Quarter (Call Someone Who Cares) Travis Tritt
1991 | Peak: #2
From the first forceful guitar strum on, this kiss-off number somehow manages to seem unusually cool and collected in its own aggression. You get the impression that Tritt’s character has been anticipating this moment, and has already made up his mind that he’s going to relish every second of it. – Dan Milliken
I’ve Come to Expect it From You George Strait
1990 | Peak: #1
It’s the catchy fiddle riff that’s so memorable about John Michael Montgomery’s debut, number one, single. He is known for being a balladeer, but this one is an up-tempo motivational song. – Leeann Ward (more…)
As we reach the halfway point of the countdown, seventies stars like Tanya Tucker and Don Williams prove just as relevant to the decade as newbies like Terri Clark and and Clay Walker. But it’s eighties original George Strait that dominates this section with three additional entries.
400 Greatest Singles of the Nineties: #225-#201
Passionate Kisses Mary Chapin Carpenter
1992 | Peak: #4
A lightweight wish list/love ditty that somehow seems to tap into a deep well of truth. Credit Carpenter’s soulful vocal, which digs in and finds the cohesive character written between the song’s separate cute lines. – Dan Milliken
The electric guitar line sounds cribbed from The Police’s “Every Breath You Take”, but the sentiment couldn’t be much more different. Dalton is tense all over, as bad omens seem to stack on top of each other while she waits in anticipation of one big let-down. – DM (more…)
From his rocking side, Tritt is tired of trying to please everyone around him, including his demanding lover. As a result, he brashly declares that he’s going to make some changes, which will include looking out for himself. Get out of the way, because his ferocious performance makes him seem quite serious about his epiphany. – Leeann Ward (more…)
The list continues with appearances from artists who first surfaced in the eighties and continued to thrive into the nineties, like Reba McEntire and Patty Loveless, along with new stars from the nineties who would find greater success in the next decade, like Toby Keith and Brad Paisley.
400 Greatest Singles of the Nineties: #300-#276
#300 Does He Love You Reba McEntire with Linda Davis
1993 | Peak: #1
This two-female duet was a gamble at the time of its release, but it offers such a brilliant fusion of perspectives that it’s hard to imagine why. The song fleshes out the range of emotions that the two women are experiencing –from pain to longing to self-doubt– and culminates in one shared question that they’ll never know the answer to: “does he love you like he’s been loving me?” – Tara Seetharam (more…)