In a world in which the likes of Garth Brooks and Shania Twain dominate the country AND pop charts the folksy sound of Mary Chapin Carpenter seems quaint and old-fashioned in comparison. But what Carpenter lacks in flash (no smashed guitars or Revlon commercials here), she more than makes up for in substance and subtly.
Carpenter’s latest release, Party Doll And Other Favorites, only adds to her unique legacy. It is a welcome 17-track retrospective spanning 10 years, and includes greatest hits, live versions of well-known songs and songs recorded for tributes, benefit albums, and soundtracks. Just for good measure, the album also contains two brand-new Carpenter songs, “Almost Home” and “Wherever You Are” and the title track which was written by Mick Jagger (for one of his ill-advised solo albums).
The hits are still as powerful as ever, but the true revelation is found in the live tracks. Her tender acoustic rereading of “Quittin’ Time” reminds listeners of a time when country music was about real emotions, not about the swagger and attitude of the big hat crowd. “Down at the Twist and Shout”, recorded with Beausoleil at the 1997 Super Bowl, is even more joyous and upbeat than the original and demonstrates Carpenter’s ability to bridge or simply ignore the restraints of musical genres.
My sentimental favorite on the disc is the plaintive “This Shirt”—an ode to a worn out piece of apparel. The strength of the song is in the small images throughout that ring quietly true. Carpenter doesn’t feel the need to slam the audience over the head with the overheated metaphors so common in country music these days. Party Girl demonstrates that Mary Chapin Carpenter remains a singular and powerful presence in pop and country music—all without the benefit of big hats or high cheekbones.