Going Out Tonight A- / Right Now A / The More Things Change A- / When She's Gone B+ / Middle Ground A- / Can't Take Love For Granted B+ / Down At the Twist and Shout A+ / Halley Came to Jackson A / What You Didn't Say A- / You Win Again A / The Moon and St. Christopher B+
Wow! Mary Chapin Carpenter's third album might be only a minor improvement over her sophomore, but it was improvement enough that it has given me some fond memories. Easily its finest moment is the hit song “Down at the Twist and Shout,” which--amazingly--melded country-western with Cajun music. And no, I'm not especially impressed by its etymology; I'm impressed because it makes me tap my feet.
Perhaps the best way to listen to it is to see it with the music video, which is just as punchy and energetic as the song. The melody is fast and simple and the tight instrumentation features an accordion, hoe-down fiddle, a flurry of guitars, and drums, which create a snappy shuffling beat. But my favorite instrument (which you'll see in the music video) is some guy thumbing a bullet-proof vest that's in the shape of a washboard. (Washboard-as-an-instrument technology has indeed come a long way since the hillbilly days!) The melody doesn't exactly have any McCartney-esque twists in it, so maybe I wouldn't call the melody brilliant. However, it's catchy and tends to linger for awhile in my head after it's through. It feels like it's been awhile since I've enjoyed a song as much as I've enjoyed that one.
The instrumentation throughout this album is excellent and does mark an improvement over her previous. The big thing that happened was that Father Time killed 1989 and thus allowed Carpenter to use a real piano for her ballads instead of that vibe-piano keyboard, which every pop-musician that year was bound by law to use. Thus, these songs tend to be more organic, and that suits them. The exception is the huge, enhanced drum sound, but I don't mind it. 1990 might have gotten rid of the vibe-piano, but those huge drums would never die.
The album opens with a breezy, acoustic piece, “Going Out Tonight,” which has thoughtful lyrics about meeting an old friend. But the second song, “Right Now,” is where the party starts. I know if I played that danceable country-western ditty to myself as I existed in the mid '90s, I would have sneered at it. I might have joked about stabbing myself in the head to prevent my future self from liking such a thing. (I think I had a bit of a morbid sense of humor.) Well, rest assured little Starcollector of Stars, I'm not about to go to the nearest country-western bar clad in cowboy boots and a denim shirt and dance to this song with my thumbs in my pockets. The critic part of me wants to complain that the melody and chord progressions are generic. However, as I've sat in a chair and listened to this at work, I've enjoyed its lively pace, infectious vocal performance, and... oh... even those cute piano and electric guitar solos in the middle. Yes, I called them “cute.” In fact, this whole album is “cute.” Your mom would not only like this record, but she probably already has it.
Generally speaking, I like the slow ballads the least, but even those find a way to win me over. When I listen to “When She's Gone,” for example, I start to think it's just an ordinary piano ballad that'll start to get boring at any moment, but then she hits the chorus with her thick and expressive voice, and it grows on me. “Middle Ground” starts similarly, but then some poppy drums pick up one minute into it, and it's become fun. My favorite ballad is by far is the eternally happy “Halley Comes to Jackson,” which goes at a pleasant, skipping pace with a pretty melody. It's instrumented with a few acoustic guitars and a piano, but the gentle fiddle player does some wonderful, warm things.
The album's closing song, “The Moon and St. Christopher,” is a heavy handed ballad and a duet with Shawn Colvin whose voice I'm only barely able to recognize. It's a pretty song with thoughtful lyrics. (When I was young I spoke like a child / I saw with a child's eyes / And an open door was to a girl / Like the stars are to the sky / It's funny how the world lives up to / All your expectations / With adventures for the stout of heart / And the lure of open spaces.) It might be my least favorite song here, though, because it tends to drag the most. But even then, it's a pretty thing.
To close, this is an excellent country-western album. I'm not claiming that it'll single-handedly win over any converts, but this album is tuneful, thoughtful, and beautifully performed with organic instruments. I'm not even close to being an expert on this subject matter, but if you want to get a good taste of this stuff, you should hear this instead of someone like Toby Keith. (Oh! But how the man flirts with the camera! Like Marilyn Monroe with a trimmed beard! Yeeeehawwww!) 12/15