Mary Chapin Carpenter: The Calling

While there are several songs here full of hope, Mary Chapin Carpenter’s latest work is led by tracks that are honest, dark, and turbulent.

Mary Chapin Carpenter

The Calling

Label: Rounder
US Release Date: 2007-03-06
UK Release Date: 2006-03-05

Since the beginning of this millennium, there have been a few world events that have made many people take stock of what’s going on, and, sadly, of what’s not taking place. The musical community has done some things to drive certain points home, including staging Live 8 in 2005, the American “Vote For Change” tour in 2004, and the recent Project Red campaign. At the same time, several artists have also taken these same world events and tragedies and were inspired to create something from it. Although she’s never been shy about standing up for causes and organizations she believes in, singer-songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter has also had recent events, including Hurricane Katrina and the New Orleans aftermath, fuel her creative juices. As a result, her latest album, The Calling, is a thoughtful yet pretty glimpse at what she’s been seeing and not seeing in recent years.

The singer made inroads years ago with a Cajun laced “Twist and Shout” hit, but don’t expect any of that feel or verve on the opening title trac, with its swaying, waltz-like quality. Accented with some pedal steel, but driven primarily by her lyrics and the strumming of an acoustic guitar, Carpenter refers to zealots and preachers, the lonely and the lost. Although the song seems to be a tad dark, there is a crack of daylight or hope near the conclusion. It seems like a song that wouldn’t be out of place on an Emmylou Harris album. Carpenter switches gears for “We’re All Right”, which is more of the usual poppy, radio-friendly adult contemporary flavor. While it’s not as attractive as “Passionate Kisses” or some of her earlier favorites, it still shouldn't be passed up or skipped over.

The record generally has a stripped down feeling, especially on the first real gem here, entitled “Twilight”, which sounds like it was recorded in one take with a lone microphone in the wee hours of a barren studio. Just the slightest percussion and some pedal steel color the song, but generally Carpenter shines by keeping it so very simple and elegant, drawing one in basically from the first verse onward. While not as somber as anything off Springsteen’s Nebraska, it still possesses that dark, haunting quality to it. But after that, the musician shifts gears totally with the bouncy yet smart adult contemporary pop of “It Must Have Happened”, which breezes by without any bumps or hiccups. And while it’s a good song, it’s one that you feel Carpenter could have done in her sleep, with the sweet harmonies almost making your eyelids heavy.

Fortunately, she reverts back to “Twilight” territory with the tender and bittersweet “On and on It Goes” that showcases her pipes, her guitar, a killer melody, and a story that is basically about life with its happy and sometimes unhappy accidents. And what seems to be the trend on the album, she changes gears back into the happy go-lucky pop sound of “Your Life Story”, which is a highlight in terms of the up-tempo tunes, with just a hint of roots rock buried deep in the track. She goes to the well once too often, though, with “On with the Song”, a slow-building number that is politically driven but doesn’t seem to work as well.

Perhaps the album’s crowning achievement is “Houston”, which is sung through the eyes of a family who have had their homes and lives destroyed by Hurricane Katrina and are now heading west with the clothes on their back and little else. “Mama’s got her baby sleeping in a grocery cart / Daddy’s eyes are hazy wondering where they are”, she sings in the opening lines, setting the stage for a journey that too, too many people endured in 2005. It’s a very moving, hair-raising track that seems to find its place at the album’s core. A close second would be “Closer and Closer Apart”, a gentle piano ditty that, with some colorful but simple wordplay, seems to describe the decline of a relationship.

Overall, The Calling contains little of the vitriol found on an album like The Revolution Starts… Now by Steve Earle. She’s not telling the FCC to perform an act of self-love or anything like that. However, she gets her message across in calmer tones with “Why Shouldn’t We”, which asks the listener to take action in the simplest of ways. The album, like so much of her other work, should be on year-end lists nine months from now.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

Net Neutrality and the Music Ecosystem: Defending the Last Mile

Still from Whiplash (2014) (Photo by Daniel McFadden - © Courtesy of Sundance Institute) (IMDB)

"...when the history books get written about this era, they'll show that the music community recognized the potential impacts and were strong leaders." An interview with Kevin Erickson of Future of Music Coalition.

Last week, the musician Phil Elverum, a.k.a. Mount Eerie, celebrated the fact that his album A Crow Looked at Me had been ranked #3 on the New York Times' Best of 2017 list. You might expect that high praise from the prestigious newspaper would result in a significant spike in album sales. In a tweet, Elverum divulged that since making the list, he'd sold…six. Six copies.

Keep reading... Show less

Under the lens of cultural and historical context, as well as understanding the reflective nature of popular culture, it's hard not to read this film as a cautionary tale about the limitations of isolationism.

I recently spoke to a class full of students about Plato's "Allegory of the Cave". Actually, I mentioned Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" by prefacing that I understood the likelihood that no one had read it. Fortunately, two students had, which brought mild temporary relief. In an effort to close the gap of understanding (perhaps more a canyon or uncanny valley) I made the popular quick comparison between Plato's often cited work and the Wachowski siblings' cinema spectacle, The Matrix. What I didn't anticipate in that moment was complete and utter dissociation observable in collective wide-eyed stares. Example by comparison lost. Not a single student in a class of undergraduates had partaken of The Matrix in all its Dystopic future shock and CGI kung fu technobabble philosophy. My muted response in that moment: Whoa!

Keep reading... Show less

'The Art of Confession' Ties Together Threads of Performance

Allen Ginsberg and Robert Lowell at St. Mark's Church in New York City, 23 February 1977

Scholar Christopher Grobe crafts a series of individually satisfying case studies, then shows the strong threads between confessional poetry, performance art, and reality television, with stops along the way.

Tracing a thread from Robert Lowell to reality TV seems like an ominous task, and it is one that Christopher Grobe tackles by laying out several intertwining threads. The history of an idea, like confession, is only linear when we want to create a sensible structure, the "one damn thing after the next" that is the standing critique of creating historical accounts. The organization Grobe employs helps sensemaking.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.