Artist: Mary Chapin Carpenter
CD Name: "Between Here and Gone ("
Record Label:Sony Nashville
Artist Site: Mary Chapin Carpenter
Mary Chapin Carpenter makes deceptively simple, warm personal music. The songs on Carpenter's new CD generally begin with a gentle strumming of a guitar or tinkling of the piano keys. Then she starts singing in a clear voice-an intimate voice that sounds like an old friend who called up just to chat. And like conversations with old friends, Carpenter's self-penned lyrics start to call back buried memories and evoke shared meanings. The instrumentation itself becomes layered with different strata of beauty-a mandolin trill deeply echoing in the background, a dobro beat creating a poetic cadence. Before a song ends it's clear Carpenter has taken the listener on a journey to another place, or maybe into the mind of a character, but somewhere filled with familiar and welcome emotions.
Carpenter is a true romantic. Not the candy and flowers kind full of cheap sentiment; she's a gal whose heart informs all of her thoughts and values from friendship and love to nation and God. Carpenter understands this about herself and sings about wearing her heart on her sleeve. Being a romantic does not make her dumb. She celebrates her compassion, even as she knows that dreams don't always come true and that we may be disappointed by others. It's this quality, and the simple eloquence of her lyrics, that makes her songs so remarkable.
For example "On Girls Like Me," Carpenter pithily describes the longing of women like herself with the line "Loneliness is like a cold/common and no cure we're told." She doesn't elaborate or moan. It's no big deal, nothing fatal, but with a simple turn of phrase Carpenter suggests the heartache and self-consciousness (and the ironic commonality) of those who find themselves alone. Meanwhile, the music shifts into a minor key that tenderly evokes sadness.
Carpenter doesn't believe that being by oneself is necessarily a bad thing. She sings about the lure of the open road and leaving everyone, even those who love you, on several tunes, including "Luna's Gone," "One Small Heart," and the title song "Between Here and Gone." The protagonist of the latter song gets in a truck and leaves the only home she's ever known. She finds strength in being by herself and depending on her own inner resources. Carpenter sings, "After all of this/the truth that holds me here/is that this emptiness/is something not to fear/I'll keep wandering…." Carpenter knows true wisdom can be found by living in uncertainty.
While Carpenter wrote all of the songs herself and plays lead on almost every cut, she's ably aided by some of Nashville's top session musicians including Stuart Duncan on fiddle, Rob Ickes on dobro, Tim O'Brien on mandolin, Viktor Krause on bass, and long-time associate John Jennings on guitar. The strings give this made in Nashville disc a country feel, but whether this album will find its way on country radio is far from a done deal. Even at the height of Carpenter's commercial country success in the early nineties, the Princeton, NJ native seemed an anomaly who would seem more at home on the folk or rock charts. However, the general excellence of this disc should generate renewed interest in Carpenter's music among radio programmers from all genres.
Artist: Candi Staton
CD Name: "Candi Staton"
Record Label: Capitol
Artist Site: Candi Staton
Born in rural Alabama in 1943, Candi Staton began her career when she was only four years old as a soloist in the church choir. By the age of eight she was part of a small traveling group of girl gospel performers. Later, Staton went to school at a Christian academy in Nashville and spent much of her early teen years as one of the school's Jewel Gospel Trio, who toured with such celebrated artists as Aretha Franklin, Mahalia Jackson, and The Staple Singers. The trio also released a number of inspirational singles, including "I Looked Down the Line" and "Too Late" for Nashboro records.
While Staton may have appeared to be a successful gospel music singer, she made little money for her efforts. At the age of seventeen, she abandoned her profession. Seven years of hard times followed, marked by an abusive husband, four children, and divorce. Meanwhile, Staton witnessed the rise of many gospel singers who left the church music circuit for lucrative pop careers. Staton began singing secular material at small clubs, when blind soul singer Clarence Carter ("Patches," "Slip Away") heard her perform. Carter got her a contract with Fame Records, where she scored a platinum record in 1970 with the bluesy Muscle Shoals studio produced "I'd Rather Be an Old Man's Sweetheart (Than a Young Man's Fool)." Staton and Carter married and fans considered them the First Lady and President of Southern Soul music.
During the next three years Staton recorded a slew of successful deep soul singles, including an incredible r&b version of Tammy Wynette's signature song, "Stand by Your Man." Staton mostly sang about sex and cheatin', playing the role of betrayed woman and hot illicit lover with equal amounts of deep emotional intensity. On "Do Your Duty" Staton tells her man that she deserves his complete sexual attention or she'll find someone else who will. She orders her boyfriend to confess his betrayal on "Evidence" as she bares her pain, while on "Another Man's Woman" and "Mr.' and Mrs. Untrue" she gently informs her lovers on the best way they can sneak around without getting caught. Staton also did another cover, a compelling version of Elvis Presley's hit, "In the Ghetto," which Presley said he preferred over his own.
The 26 cuts on this collection all come from this period. They were recorded at Muscle Shoals with various members of the legendary house band and penned by songwriters like Eddie Hinton and George Jackson. These classics tunes have been unavailable for years as Fame Records troubled business dealings prevented the re-release of this material. Staton, who was a big star, has been largely forgotten today because of the inaccessibility of her recordings. This CD should help remedy this situation as she takes her place among Tina Turner, Aretha Franklin and other soul sisters of her generation.
Staton and Carter divorced in 1974. She signed with Warner Brothers in 1974 and had a mild hit with "Young Hearts Run Free," which later became a big disco hit. Staton became a popular disco diva, but her personal life came apart. She married (and divorced) again to a man she describes as a violent drug dealer and became addicted to various substances. The fifth time was the charm though as she wed former Diana Ross drummer John Susswell. The two began married life as self-admitted cocaine addicts, but found God and turned their lives around. The pair became church pastors in Atlanta, Georgia and in 1982, Staton stopped singing secular music. Staton went back to singing gospel and hosted a cable television program that ministeredto at-risk youth for more than a decade. She published her biography "You Got the Love in 1994 and in 1999 put out a non-gospel record to that garnered critical applause. But it is the 26 sides on this collection that made her the First Lady of Southern Soul, an accolade this CD proves she deserves.
CD Name: Travelogue
Record Label: Action Heights
Artist Site: No Website Found
Do you miss the sound of guitar heavy, crunchy rock and roll? You can find that here in abundance, and much more. Led by Dan Maloney and Drew Bixby's twin-guitar attack, the Iowa City band Faultlines (not to be confused with the British electronica group Faultline) puts the sound of electric guitars front and center, and with the aid of Sam Koester's pounding drum work and Brian Korey's pulsating bass lines, make a direct, sonic assault on the listener. Oh, the group has its quiet, quirky moments. Sometimes, the fellows get into a catchy groove reminiscent of The Feelies or XTC, but then watch out, with a burst of energy the band erupts into something tough and sinewy. According to the band's website, fans compare Faultines' crunchy and volatile sound with that of the early work of Omaha's Cursive.
The band named the eleven songs after individual days (i.e. "Day One: Modern Traveler," "Day Two: Mid-City Silhouette," "Day Three: Upon Deaf Ears," etc.) although the disc was literally recorded in Chicago in six days from December 27-December 31 2003 and on January 13, 2004. The story line follows a road trip and literally begins with the sound of getting into the van and taking off. Other sounds concrete are woven through to add a dose of reality for the journey into a slightly altered consciousness. There's something about the open road that frees one's mind to imagine and reflect. The instrumental first song sets the mood. The tune's rhythms mimic the cadences in one's head when driving down the highway, sometimes slowing down to think, other times moving faster when paying attention to the traffic and the white lines zipping by.
The rest of the songs contain free-associative lyrics that can jump from thought to thought faster than a van can fly. Anyone who has made long distance drives knows the mixture of boredom and anxiety of high-speed travel. Consider lyrics like: "It's better if you just leave me alone/who really wants to be all alone?" "This place completes me now/but I can't wait to get out," and "It's wishful thinking to think I'll ever win" that are typical in how they express the mindset of one with maybe too much time to ponder and not enough time to act. The hard driving music behind the lyrics complements this restless spirit.
The band knows that time doesn't last forever and that the road has to stop somewhere. They eloquently convey this in a song that appears to be a tribute to the late Matt Davis of 10 Grand, to whom the disc is dedicated. "Day Eight: Augten" opens with the touching "This life, this time, is fragile like glass/" sung with a venomous sneer. The imagery symbolizes despair (i.e. broken mirrors, people dressed in black, cold and empty streets, etc.), but the song ends on a hopeful note. How can it not, for while Matt died needlessly of natural causes, the members of Faultlines are still alive and going places: "Time stands still/but we travel on/always wondering why?" According to Plato, Socrates said, "the unexamined life is not worth living." The power of Faultlines' music helps one reflect and still move on.
Artist: Magnetic Fields
CD Name: i
Record Label: Nonesuch
Artist Site: Magnetic Fields
If Magnetic Fields leader Stephin Merritt would have wanted to, he could have called his latest release 69 Love Songs Continued, because the disc contains many of the same pop themes and elements as his 1999 breakthrough 3-CD opus. Instead Merritt entitled the record i, as all the songs therein begin with this eighth letter of the alphabet, and probably because he wrote and sings most of the cuts in the first person. Impresario Merritt uses the lower case i rather than the usual upper-case spelling of the word to suggest a young narrator inexperienced in the ways of the world.
Indeed, Merritt writes charming lyrics that mix Tin Pan Alley sentimental schlock and sophisticated Indie rock attitudes to create Holden Caufield type characters who can't decide whether growing up is worth all the trouble. Internalizing each situation, the narrators pontificate in interior monologues on love and relationships from idealist points-of-view of those who know the world (and themselves) are corrupt. "I Wish I Had an Evil Twin," sings one narrator, so he could secretly sin without being caught. If he could seduce and steal with impunity, the character would take advantage of the fact without feeling any qualms about so doing.
Impulsive as they may be, Merritt's narrators are usually more infantile than irresponsible. "I Was Born" and "I Die" both offer good examples as songs that tell the old sad story of how we are born only to age and lose the special qualities that make us joyful children. Inappropriate behavior stems from being repressed rather than from malicious motives. "I Don't Believe You" and "I Looked All Over Town" are songs with related themes that reveal the singer's frustrations at growing up in an unfair world.
Individual songs of special merit include the theatrical "In an Operetta" and the melodramatic "I Thought You Were My Boyfriend," which both build to musical climaxes that then dissipate into emotional effervescences. Imagine love as a castle made of air and deep feelings transforming into froth. Ideally, emotions are valued simply for their ephemeral integrity. Infatuation becomes something to avoid because of its lingering effects. Intangible qualities, such as the way in which Merritt's voice quivers when expressing a delicate emotion in the first mentioned cut, or how a brief silence between notes adds to the drama expressed in the other song cited, help make this disc so listenable.
In this age of sophisticated electronics, the Magnetic Fields' music alternatively features an incongruous mix of banjo, harpsichord, cello and other stringed instruments used in purposely primitive ways to reinforce the childlike consciousness of the narrators. Infectiously simple, the tunes express the joy of youth mixed with the smarmy feeling of a lad whose hand has been caught in the cookie jar once too often and no longer cares about the punishment. Impudence can be rewarding and make the forbidden treats taste sweeter, as any bad boy knows.
Intellectually speaking the use of the letterI to start each song may be gimmicky, but the results prove this a worthwhile endeavor. Intuitively, Merritt understands that sometimes such a literary device can spark creative thought as a sort of invocation. Inherent in such an act is having faith in the process of songwriting itself. In the end, Merritt's trust in his instincts suggests how talented he is.
CD Name: Madvillian
Record Label: Stones Throw
Artist Site: Madvillian
Madvillian is the musical equivalent of those old head comix from the sixties. Rooted in the Mad magazine school of humor, artists like R. Crumb and Gilbert Shelton parodied conformist popular culture to the extreme by taking its productions seriously, revealing their silliness and our shared paranoia. The targets came from all genres, B- movie detective dramas, television cop shows, super hero comic magazines, and newspaper strips. Anything and anybody could be mocked. The targets shared a sanctimoniousness in common, whether it was TV's Joe Friday saying mothers who smoke marijuana in a stoned stupor would drown their babies or Rex Morgan M.D. warning kids that they could catch a venereal disease by sitting on a toilet seat.
The hip-hop group Madvillian uses the sonic raw material of the era that the head comix lampooned. While the musical elements go unidentified, the cheesy jazz of pretentious and portentous sixties flicks, TV shows, and scratchy mono recordings are cut up and scratched to provide a base over which to rap. Like the creators of head comix, Madvillian celebrates sex, exaggerates violence, and pokes fun at the larger American society. The humor comes from word play and Spike Jones-like onomatopoeic musical elements. Madvillian is basically a duo that gets a little help from their friends. Madlib (Daniel Dumile) mostly handles the lyrical elements while DOOM (Otis Jackson Jr.) mainly controls the instrumental beats, but sometimes it appears it may be the other way around (the disc offers few clues as to who is doing what). It's hard to say who is more of a genius (and I don't use that word lightly) or where the collaboration begins and ends. The two work together in such a complementary way that separating them for analysis would be a worthless exercise.
Suffice it to say that the music truly inspires the listener to imagine gritty city streets where a menacing mix of abandoned factories and seedy apartment buildings peopled by bad characters and dangerous girls exists in the fog and smog. Fuzzy Farfisa organ fills, off-kilter piano riffs, distorted sax solos and sound effects like old-fashioned style ringing telephones and crying babies all recorded as if from behind closed doors set the atmosphere. The words flow as if spouted by a drunken Robert Stack from "The Untouchables" era, with an authority that both satirizes and reinforces their meaning. When Madlib says he's gonna "Slip like Freudian," you know he's right and that his words have a deeper meaning. Like Freud, Madlib knows the relationship between jokes and the unconscious. He's prepared to show the dark side of our thoughts and the connection between "the comedic and the relentlessly horrifying."
The duo sonically takes on the mask of villains as a way of conceptualizing the CD and tying the cuts together. Madvillian intersperse the songs with authoritative pronouncements about super criminals to show our shared fears by making light of them. Madlib says the words are "written in cold blood with a toothpick," a suggestive detail whose gruesomeness instantly becomes a caricature. You're not meant to believe it-it's a hip-hop album, the words are said aloud not inscribed on paper, and the cartoonish violence suggested has surreal implications. But we live in a barbaric world where cops are shot for being cops, thugs are killed for being thugs and "It costs billions to blast humans in half" in the war in Iraq. Madvillian understands our collective dreams have become an American nightmare, and you might as well laugh and party while waiting for the end of the world.