According to the conventional wisdom, Mary Chapin Carpenter is a folk singer who, through a mixture of timing, skill and perseverance, found an audience among country fans. So since her new album, "Stones in the Road" (Columbia 64327), forsakes the bright, pop-savvy sound of her last album, "Come On, Come On," for an understated, more introspective approach, the conventional take will likely be that she's making a return to her folk roots.
But as usual, the conventional wisdom gets only half the picture. There's nothing on Carpenter's new album that can match the boogie-fueled drive of "The Bug" or the soulful swagger of "I Feel Lucky," but that hardly means it doesn't rock. Likewise, while the album has more than its share of traditional elements, thanks to the Celtic flavoring in "Jubilee" and Appalachian overtones that color the chorus "Why Walk When You Can Fly," its folk content is no higher than on her last two albums.
No matter how much some reviewers might want to cite such differences as evidence that success has somehow changed Mary Chapin Carpenter, however, the truth is that "Stones in the Road" is entirely typical of her output. Because at bottom, her music has never been concerned with matters of style, choosing to emphasize what the songs say over how they say it. That's as much the case on this album as anywhere in her catalog.
aflead,.340l Just look at the current single, "Shut Up and Kiss Me." Heard on the radio, it comes across as just another good-natured country rocker, cut from much the same cloth as "I Feel Lucky."
Listen closely, though, and the impression changes. Whereas "Lucky" brimmed with devil-may-care insouciance, "Kiss Me" offers an inviting mixture of confidence and insecurity -- precisely the sort of pleasant ambivalence the lyric describes. Yet as wary as the first two verses seem, by the time we get through the slide guitar and boogie piano solos (courtesy of Lee Roy Parnell and Benmont Tench, respectively) Carpenter's protagonist has gained enough self-assurance to seize both the day and the whispered "shut up and kiss me!" chorus.
What makes the song work isn't just the music, though, but the way Carpenter describes her protagonist's transition from awkward partner to eager lover. By framing the song as a sort of interior monologue, she puts the emphasis on showing the heroine's feelings rather than simply telling us how she felt. It's a simple trick but one that makes it much easier for the listener to imagine him- or her self in the same situation.
Carpenter applies that strategy all through the album, from the dreamy, Joni Mitchell-like cadences of "This Is Love" to the Springsteenian surge of "House of Cards," but it's hardly the only trick in her book. In fact, it would be safe to say that one of the richest pleasures to be had from this album is reveling in its narrative variety.
"The Last Word," for instance, is a slow, brooding tune that presents itself as a one-sided argument, the final thrust of someone so tired of fighting that she has no interest in having the last word. "You can have it, I don't want it," she sings, "and when you've got it I'll be gone." (Cleverly, the song never actually says what "it" is -- truly leaving "the last word" for somebody else.)
"John Doe No. 24" offers a different kind of story altogether. Although the tale Carpenter tells is based in fact, her treatment is almost novelistic in its wealth of detail and emotional impact. Listening to it is almost like seeing a photograph of a stranger and somehow knowing his life story. Yet as rich as the song is, its musical means are astonishingly slight: just Carpenter, her guitar and occasional commentary from Branford Marsalis' soprano saxophone.
Then there's the title tune, a mid-tempo number filled with wistful memories and a longing for a life that's as simple as the one we had in childhood. But the changes Carpenter is concerned with have less to do with the world itself than with our place in it, and the dangerous tendency to assume that we, as adults, are no more connected to the bigger picture than we were as kids.
Rather than make this point from atop a soap box, Carpenter merely sketches the scene for us, using her words to draw us in the shared experiences she describes while the music, with its sad, slow-arching melody and quiet, minor-key harmonies, plays on our feelings.
It's a subtle piece of work, but only to the extent that it doesn't draw attention to its own ingenuity. But like everything else on "Stones in the Road," it gets the job done with enough grace and panache to entertain any listener.
What: Country Music Association Awards
When: 8 to 11 tonight
Where: WBAL, Channel 11 (CBS)
CALL OF THE 'ROAD
To hear excerpts from Mary Chapin Carpenter's new album, "Stones in the Road," call Sundial at (410) 783-1800, access code 6214. For other Sundial numbers, see the SunSource directory on Page 2A.