Mary Chapin Carpenter – Sometimes Just the Sky
Thirty Tigers – 30 March 2018
This reimagined set of songs (one from each studio release session, plus the new title track) from over thirty years of song-writing seems like a particularly important album for veteran singer songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter, who has been releasing albums since 1987. Carpenter states that the key to Sometimes Just the Sky was an interview she read with Patti Smith, who believes that ‘you don’t have to look far or wide, and it doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive or madness in order to find things to soothe you in life or to be happy about’. In a musical sense, this new mindset seems like an extension of the ethos behind 2016’s wonderful The Things that we are Made of, a David Cobb produced album that marked a distinct change in style for Carpenter from her previous Songs From the Movie, which was, like this record, a reinterpretation of old songs. But where that set laid on orchestration and lush backing, Things stripped it all back and let the songs speak for themselves, a brave move that, with assured handling, paid off and resulted in a memorable album. Thankfully, Sometimes Just the Sky also brings in top quality personnel for production and session duties. Although the arrangements here are not as sparse as Things, what producer Ethan Johns has ensured, through the live band recording process (why would you do it any other way with a band album?), is an organic and streamlined hour of music through thirteen songs.
As soon as ‘Heroes and Heroines’, from 1987’s Hometown Girl begins, the aim of the project becomes immediately clear, with a strummed guitar line replacing the original piano and a slightly lower, wearier yet richer vocal announcing that ‘heroes and heroines are scarcer than they’ve ever been / so much more to lose than win’ giving the song more credence. The whole thing just seems more believable coming from a voice at this end of its career. More surprising and less easy to compare is the next song, ‘What Does it Mean to Travel’, which is taken from Mary Chapin’s previously mentioned album, The Things that we are Made of. But what this version does is soften the edges of the 2016 song, by bringing in some minimal electric guitar lines and having Mary Chapin seeming to take a small step back from the microphone, lending her vocal slightly less prowess and a somehow more soothing aspect. It is clever recording, and instead of contradicting the other song, it cleverly creates multi-facets and subtly enriches both pieces.
The effect of amplifying the quality of two tracks is achieved again in the midsection of the album, albeit with a different technique. The excellence and sturdiness of the Johns chosen session band playing in the same ‘wooden’ room (at Real World Studios near Bath) with Carpenter across this album, with the result of the songs we hear being what was played in that room, means that the album can maintain a seamless cohesion across its runtime, while shifting the time tempo of the songs and keeping the listener interested throughout. A good example of this is on ‘Superman’, a song from the Time* Sex* Love* sessions of 2001, backing onto ‘Naked to the Eye’, from 1996’s Place in the World LP. ‘Superman’ clocks in at over six minutes and starts as it means to continue, with a meditative undulating guitar creating the spine of the song, before Carpenter’s spacious vocal sets in. It’s a patient piece with spectral guitars keeping to the shadows while the reverb slowly builds alongside the violin line, creating a great obscurity of a song that adds a thoughtful adult texture to the album. And it somehow leads nicely into ‘Naked to the Eye’, although it is almost the opposite in style. The old-time fiddles and mandolin kick in and a narrative begins of walking streets talking to oneself before the chorus brings in backing vocals for varying but sturdily classic lyrics (‘when you look at me babe / my god how I feel so whole again’). This one hangs around for not much more than three minutes and sits in mutual contrast and compliment with ‘Superman’.
Best of all is ‘This Shirt’, an article focused journey song from 1989’s State of the Heart album. Much like many of the songs here, the re-visiting of old work gives it a new spin and, much like on ‘Heroes and Heroines’, seems to add value to lyrics like ‘I’ve had it now for more damn years than I can count […] So old I should replace it, but I’m not about to try’. The slowing down of the tune works too with the more mature vocal to result in a track that plays far better and has the effect of a listener readier to believe the narrator has been on the journey. It also leads nicely into the final title track, the only new song here. The tempo remains leisurely and the storyteller is still weary and still recounting the past, but perhaps with some lessons learned: ‘Used to be that all I needed was what I didn’t possess’. Much like Erika’s Wennerstrom’s Sweet Unknown album, which was the last I looked at, there is catharsis aplenty here, with the crucial lyric sang sweetly after a twelve track strong career glimpse and before the ace band take over to end an epic set with a lovely measured two minute jam that encapsulates the album’s message: ‘Sometimes everything at once, sometimes just the sky’.
A beautifully conceived and considered set that provides a rich and generous window into the career of this great veteran singer songwriter.
Mary Chapin Carpenter Tour Dates
Photo Credit: Inset image Aaron Farrington courtesy of Thirty Tigers.