What makes this album so special? Taken from not the happiest of times for her, Mary Chapin’s finely crafted stories of heartache and of how she has handled loss, her father and divorce. Stripped near to the bone Ashes And Roses is her most acoustic recording in years, plus it is most beautiful too!
Simply produced (by pianist Matt Rollings), written and performed, Mary Chapin Carpenter is in fine form throughout. So effortless in the way she both sings and has put together the soothing melodies. I have fond memories of discovering her debut album Home Town Girl (1987) just as her State Of The Heart (1989) was coming out as people were falling head over heels with her songwriting. Littered with such classics as ‘This Shirt’, ‘Quittin’ Time’, ‘Down In Mary’s Land’, ‘How Do’, ‘Never Had It So Good’ and ‘Something of A Dreamer’ it opened the gates for her. Undoubtedly one of the Top 5 albums in recent times by a female Americana or New Country (as the likes of Nanci Griffith etc were tagged back in the mid-late 1980s) act!
Since then Carpenter became a mainstay on the country scene, but her work remained untarnished by the Nashville’s commercial side. She was even clever enough to write songs about the short sightedness of Music City’s corporative machine. Now free from the major labels she is carving out a series of splendid image stirring albums on Rounder Records, and if prodded, arguably better. Her songs have always been easily accessed and relatively uncomplicated plus there is her social awareness and her looking into her own life and those close to her. Of a quality today’s aspiring acts should be urged to study at every opportunity.
As for Ashes and Roses she eases through tales concerning ‘What To Keep And What To Thrown Away’ and of how one can easily become disillusioned and a sceptic via ‘The Swords We Carried’. Plus as she braced herself (again) when it was time to move on and find another home and rid herself of ghostly memories ‘Another Home’ (a song that proved harder to chew than most any on the album) and then there is the pivotal track ‘Chasing What’s Already Gone’. Its simple and shrewd lyrics tell it as it is. ‘Don’t Need To Be Happy’ is a typical, melancholy one she is so good at writing, likewise could be said of ‘Soul Companion’ for it too has Mary Chapin written all over it, as James Taylor and herself sing with a joyful feel the lyrics of hope!
Her voice has rarely, if ever, sounded better but when hasn’t she sounded good. Carpenter’s songs over the years have been recorded by such a diverse set of acts as Shawn Colvin, Mary Black, Cyndi Lauper, Maura O’Connell, Joan Baez, Tony Rice, Wynonna and Trisha Yearwood among others are still good ones! Ashes And Roses may not quite be a 5-star record but it isn’t far from it and if there were one or two more songs like the beautifully woven ‘New year’s Day’ it could well have been. For the song with understated electric guitar, piano, acoustic guitar and shuffling percussion gently guiding her there is a wondrous grace few others ever come near matching. ‘Fading Away’ that speaks of getting over old memories she needed to on her marriage break-up is another fine effort before she closes in sombre mood as she talks of ‘letting another into her heart’ after her loss (she also lost her father as the songs were being written for the album). The last few years have been tough for the Grammy Winning act who herself went through a traumatic illness and to her credit regained her former glories as both a songwriter and recording artist of impeccably taste when it comes to making a record.
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