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Tom Chapin

In the City of Mercy

(Gadfly)

If you have small children, the name Tom Chapin may be familiar from the many albums he has recorded for kids in recent years. If you’re a Harry Chapin fan, no doubt you heard his brother Tom mentioned at some point as a footnote to the more famous sibling of the two. This disc marks the CD debut of a 1982 album, and it makes it painfully clear why Harry was the more successful songwriter.


Suffering in retrospect from hackneyed 1970’s folk-rock production that colors perception even on the good songs, tunes like “Willie, (The Ballad of Willie Sutton)”, undoubtedly had more import in their own time frame than they do now, dragging on interminably through the weakest of choruses. Even on the songs that aren’t musically dated, like the slow burning, bluesy, “Summerville”, Chapin’s lyrics are head-scratchingly horrible: “Above my head, the moon is red / Dead still, a sleeping pill”).


Perhaps it is too harsh and unfair a criticism to say that Tom is no Harry, but the evidence presented here does little to contradict the stereotype of boring, self-indulgent singer-songwriters regardless of whom the comparison is made with. It is a telling detail when the best song here is a straight-up reading of brother Harry’s “Circle”. With a timeless lyric and a decent melody, Chapin does a commendable job, and you can hear the family ties in the timbre of his voice, just as you can hear the lack of substance throughout the rest of the album. As the song says, though, all of life is a circle—and as the years go rolling by, even bad albums get reissued sometime, to come ‘round one more time.

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