[29 July 2005]
Beth Nielsen Chapman is a rare creature; a songwriter first and a performer second. Ever since Li’l Robert Zimmerman came along, followed by those nutty Beatle kids, the in-thing in rock music was to be a “singer-songwriter”. Then the parade of Joni Mitchells, James Taylors, John Hiatts and the like began. To be a singer of others’ songs was to be without credibility. And to be a songwriter who didn’t really sing meant . . . going to Nashville.
And so Beth Nielsen Chapman went to Nashville in the early 1980s. She had a solo album under her belt (Hearing It First), but her songs were the thing. Recorded by country stars like Willie Nelson, Martin McBride, Tanya Tucker, Trisha Yearwood, Lorrie Morgan, Amy Grant, Emmylou Harris, Anne Murray, and Alabama, Ms. Nielsen Chapman hardly needed to make her own records. Add to that non-Nashville interpreters like Bette Midler, Neil Diamond, and Elton John, and you have the financial independence of a legitimate rock star.
Despite this success, Ms. Nielsen Chapman, however, has continued to record. She has a modest but pleasant voice that, on the right songs, comes through like Mary Chapin Carpenter on a so-so day. And who’s to begrudge her recording of her own stuff? Dylan never sang as skillfully as the Byrds or Joan Baez, but he has done it for years. In fact, Dylan’s singular vision of his own songs was so strong and so right that his singing has defined its own kind of natural excellence. So why not Ms. Nielsen Chapman? I mean, Mary Chapin Carpenter on a so-so day is better than most people at their very best.
(Do you think that Beth Nielsen Chapman sounds like Mary Chapin Carpenter because of the three-name thing? If Sarah Michelle Gellar became a singer, whom would she sound like? I think Helena Bonham Carter would sound like June Carter Cash, but that’s just a guess. Sorry. Back to the review.)
So, you come to Look with certain expectations about the quality of the tunes and the styles — big fat ballads, country-tinged grooves, confessional weepies — you’ll hear. You might also be aware that Ms. Nielson Chapman has plenty of sad material for her songs. Her husband died of cancer suddenly in 1994, then she fought off breast cancer herself starting in 2000. Jeepers.
Look, however, is not a depressing record. Its theme is largely that of love, and the songs range from the ambiguity of the opener “Trying to Love You” to the romantic certainty of “I Find Your Love”. The sound, while assaying a handful of styles, is similarly focused; slow to mid tempos guide pensive melodies through a glade of acoustic guitars and pop-folk orchestration. As a guy, I’m not sure if I should call it a five-hankie album, a pour-yourself-a-cup-of-tea album or a buy-it-for-your-best-friend-Ellen album, but you get the idea. Lots of sensitively expressed feelings here, kids. Nice songs.
Here’s the problem: it’s a little dull. The reason for this goes beyond the niceness of the tunes and the mushiness of the tempos. The vocal quality is good, but it’s not special. Nielsen Chapman wisely delivers the songs without any vocal pyrotechnics, but too often her voice (the focus of the songs and the meat in the middle of the sandwich) seems incidental to what’s going on. When she’s matched with a vocal duet partner, things spark up considerably. Michael McDonald, husky-voiced as ever, gives “Right Back Into the Feeling” a Doobie-ish/Steely Dan-ish burst of color. And Ernest Chapman (BNC’s son, I believe) brings out the contour of “Your Love Stays”. But on too many of the other songs, well, you just wish it was a Lucy Kaplansky album or a Shawn Colvin disc.
This problem is most pronounced on the three tracks featuring Nielsen Chapman’s voice against a string section and piano. “Look” sounds very much like a classic “standard” in the vein of, say, Rogers and Hart. It’s a lovely song with a harmonic progression I’d love to hear Sonny Rollins play over. But the vanilla voice is exposed in this kind of setting. While she seems confessional and sometimes jaunty in her natural pop-folk context, here her voice seems thin, tentative and too narrow in range. When Linda Ronstadt tried this, then Joni, the results were not particularly impressive, but their voices withstood the scrutiny. Not here.
“Touch My Heart” is a poppier song, something that a real singer is going to have a killer hit with. In its present form however, it falls flat. The string arrangement is not overbearing, but the vocal remains overpowered. “I Find Your Love” could be a demo for Bette Midler or Whitney Houston, but as the last track on this record it feels wilted rather than inspired, like a four-cylinder Honda engine trying to power a monster truck of a song.
Yet if you’re a fan of Beth Nielsen Chapman songs, these flaws are worth overlooking as many of the songs are so good. “Time Won’t Tell” has a slow Nashville-feel about a love that lingers after the fact. “Will and Liz” is a folk-funk story-song about “a couple of crazy kids” in love. “Who We Are” is about a friendship that overcomes a dark moment, with beautiful backing vocals by Emily Saliers. Each one succeeds on its words and melody alone, and these versions are direct and clear.
Look was released in England more than a year ago, so I don’t expect that anyone is expecting it to make a huge splash on radio or elsewhere. But what does it matter? The people who know Beth Nielsen Chapman’s real talent recognize the worth of these songs, and they’re probably recording their own versions of them right about now.