sat 15/12/2018

CD: Mary Chapin Carpenter - Sometimes Just the Sky | reviews, news & interviews

CD: Mary Chapin Carpenter - Sometimes Just the Sky

CD: Mary Chapin Carpenter - Sometimes Just the Sky

Thirty years' worth of pearls from the Mary Chapin Carpenter jewel box

Carpenter: perfectly controlled and effortless

It rather surprising to note that Mary Chapin Carpenter turned 60 earlier this year, which means she’s been making records for half her life, around in ours for 30 years – but it seems like yesterday. She has wisely resisted the album-a-year treadmill, which means that in assembling the “reimaginings” of songs from her back catalogue for Sometimes Just the Sky, she had a dozen studio albums to choose from.

The voice seems unchanged: rich, deep, instantly recognisable, with a lovely touch of vibrato. She’s great at husky sotto voce – “Rhythm of the Blues” is a case in point – and her voice always sounds both perfectly controlled and effortless. There’s a wonderful intimacy to it – listening to her is the audio equivalent of sinking into a comfy armchair in the flickering light of a fire with a good friend and a glass of mellow rioja. Carpenter recorded at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios in Bath with producer Ethan Johns and a bunch of favourite musicians, including guitarist Duke Levine, a long-time collaborator who has laid down some great lines here. Credits are sparse, but take a bow whoever plays the fiddle, mandolin, and the Hammond organ on “One Small Heart”.

Although she has two CMA awards, Carpenter is not strictly a country singer, though that was how she was marketed in the late 1980s. She’s a singer of stories, her intricate, carefully wrought lyrics drawing you in, and she walks the hyphen that joins country with folk. The catch-all these days is of course Americana. If there's a criticism, it's perhaps that there's not enough light and shade, but if you like MCC  you won't mind that. The stand-out tracks are “The Moon and St Christopher” and “This Shirt”, an exquisite memory of old love in a faded shirt, the sort you can never bear to throw out. "Superman" is beguiling, the vocal floating over a mysterious sound-world featuring an acoustic guitar ostinato and a gossamer-light violin line.

The title song is the only new number on the album, a reflection on a life in which “every choice I made has worked out which was just a lucky guess”. It was inspired by Patti Smith, who once said that we don’t need material posessions to make us happy and fulfilled – sometimes "just the sky" makes everything fall into happy perspective. It’s all about being emotionally open, about hanging on to dreams. It’ll be good to hear these reworkings on Carpenter's upcoming tour.

Liz Thomson's website

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