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Mary Chapin Carpenter - Time * Sex * Love Print E-mail
Tuesday, 02 April 2002
Mary Chapin Carpenter,
Time * Sex * Love
(SACD stereo/multichannel),
Columbia Records, 2001
Performance 9 | Sound 8 |

ImageMary Chapin Carpenter is unusual in the Nashville scene in that she writes virtually all her own material, but then, it’s a mystery to me how Carpenter, essentially a country-folk singer/songwriter, ever made it from Washington DC’s '80s folk scene to the cliquey world of Nashville’s music business in the first place. Although she works from time with Nashville’s top songwriters – Gary Burr collaborates on three songs here, and one is co-written with long-time partner guitarist John Jennings – much of the work is purely her own, and she takes a strong line, including some fairly feminist content over the years, which has not always enthused country radio. Well, they’re missing out in this case, as I would rate “Time* Sex* Love*” as one of her best, coming a good five years after the release of “A Place In The World,” which was less enthusiastically received than her big hits like “Come On Come On.”

The asterisks in the title actually indicate footnotes, or if you prefer, the “full” title of the record, printed on the back cover: “Time is the great gift; sex is the great equalizer; love is the great mystery” – apparently a quote from co-producer and guitarist John Jennings. If that sounds a bit pretentious, don’t let it worry you. It’s an entirely accurate headline for the album’s content – essentially Carpenter’s most mature offering to date, with thoughtful, intelligent observations from the heart on life and love.

The nearest this album actually gets to Nashville is the mixing, handled by George Massenburg at his studio in fashionable Franklin, TN, home to many a country star and studio. The album was recorded, also by Massenburg, in London’s Air Studios, home of Sir George Martin, and the band – excellent musicians throughout – includes at least one surprise, namely Dave Mattacks, late of Fairport Convention (though Mattacks did appear on a Carpenter album in the '80s). Massenburg’s mixing is virtually flawless: the surround mix is excellent and the stereo hi-res mix similarly so. Note that there is no Red Book layer on this disc for some reason: you will need an SACD player. I should also note that I was pleased to find this in my local Fry’s for a mere $16.99.

The work leads off with a couple of characteristic MCC medium-tempo songs, the opener being “Whenever You’re Ready,” a Gary Burr collaboration. The slow, extended solo piano intro (played by Steve Nathan) is extremely impressive, and leads beautifully into the song proper, with guitars all around the room, which sets the tone, if not the tempo, for the album. This and the second track, “Simple Life” – a mid-life reflection if ever there was one – are my higher-tempo favorites (there are a couple more I’ll come to later). After this, the album settles down to a more intimate feel and a slower tempo with “Swept Away.” The surround stage takes on some variation here, too, with an interesting wrapping of the drums around the listener for the second number, while remaining anchored in the front stage: it works very well. Continuing in the slower vein, “Slave to the Beauty,” another personal favorite (you’ll see that I have several) features a gorgeous guitar solo from Duke Levine, one of several on the album. At the end, an unexpected string arrangement appears – written by Nick Ingman, who I remember working with years ago when I was at EMI – very effective, although perhaps there are just a few too many repeats. (My view has always been that if you’ve got a great hook, you should go round it too few times, so people will want to play it again.) “Maybe World” is another composition by Carpenter and Burr, with a multi-part vocal intro and a kind of old-fashioned feel, again with strings.

Around the middle of this 15-song, 75+-minute album, we’re at the heart of the material. “This Is Me Leaving You,” co-written with Jennings, is familiar Carpenter territory, but with a twist … and then the ninth track, “Someone Else’s Prayer,” stopped me dead in my tracks. It’s always dangerous to assume that there is autobiographical content in a song, but in any creative writing, part of the author is bound to come through. So what personal events does this song refer to, with its powerful evocations of time and place? “Tonight the brightest moon in a hundred years/Floods the streets of Rome and I am standing here/Wondering where the ghosts of antiquity/Hide on nights like this once a century…” It’s a very simple arrangement, with Carpenter’s voice close and breathy, sounding almost like Jennifer Warnes. It’s followed by another lyrical stunner, “The Dreaming Road,” with a gentle halo of keyboards hovering around more wonderful lyrics.

Brilliant songs and arrangements just keep on coming. Another gentle, simple arrangement, “Alone But Not Lonely,” with a beautiful harmony vocal from Jennings and an evocative cello solo (from Tony Pleeth): “There are moments in time that are meant to be held/Like fragile, breakable things/There are others that pass us, you can’t even tell/Such is their grace and their speed/And this one is gone in the blink of an eye/You can ask me the truth but tonight I will lie/Unflinching I’ll tell you that I’m alone but not lonely.” Powerful, moving and wonderful.

There’s a strange thing you notice as the tempo comes back up towards the end of the album, and that is that the musicians and the arrangements are always counterbalancing the lyrics and the message of the songs, never letting it get too heavy or gloomy, always with a certain lightness, however deep the lyrics. “The Long Way Home,” with its career-oriented tale of life perhaps taken for granted, carries the traditional Carpenter sound, with half the lyrics spoken rather than sung. And then there’s the electric sitar and enormous vocal arrangement of “In The Name of Love,” and finally – well, almost finally – the gentle closer, “Late for your Life,” with another outstanding Levine guitar solo.

But don’t stop listening just yet. The SACD has an extra, undocumented track. Titled “Going Home,” it begins with a “false start” take of “The Long Way Home,” including count-in, which rapidly falls apart in gales of uncontrollable laughter. There are some weirdly panned train sounds recorded in the London Underground: a robot-like voice repeats, “Mind the gap,” warning travelers to watch out for the hazardous space between the curved platform and the train doors. Then up comes another song seemingly from nowhere, count-off and all, by the sound of it completely live and without overdubs (in fact, curiously, you can hear the solos a little more clearly in the stereo mix than in surround). It’s a true gem and another of my favorites. “Mind the gap,” says Carpenter slyly as she leads into a final mandolin solo, presumably from Levine. A great way to end a great album.

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