MARY CHAPIN CARPENTER – Sometimes Just The Sky (Lambent Light LLR002)

Sometimes Just The SkyRevisiting is the new Best Of. In recent years, several artists have either gone to their back catalogue and reworked old songs in next contexts or released albums of songs they’d written for others but never recorded themselves. Carpenter takes the former route here with a collection of twelve of her best loved numbers, one from each of her albums (save for the Christmas one), set alongside the all new title track to mark the thirtieth anniversary of her recording career.

Produced by Ethan Johns and recorded entirely live at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios, alongside Johns on a variety of guitars, dulcimer and mandocello, the musicians include Carpenter regular Duke Levine on guitars, bassist Dave Bronze, Stephanie Jean on keys, drummer Jeremy Stacey and Georgina Leach on strings.

‘Heroes and Heroines’ was the closing number on her 1987 debut album, Hometown Girl is here promoted to the opening track, here with the focus on guitar rather than keyboards and the introduction of violin, the vocal delivery, softer, more introspective. Her second album, State of the Heart, yields a more fleshed-out arrangement of ‘This Shirt’, originally backed by just fingerpicked acoustic but this time given strings and a bassier edge to the rhythm.

Arguably her best-known song, the wistful ‘The Moon and St. Christopher’ appeared on 1990’s Shooting Straight In The Dark, back then a piano ballad, but now slow swaying across melancholic acoustic guitars, dulcimer and yearning violin. Rather than, as one might expect, ‘Passionate Kisses’, the choice from Come On Come On sustains the overall melancholic air with ‘Rhythm of the Blues’, twangier guitar the only major shift in sound.

From Stones In The Road, her only Billboard Country No 1, ‘This Is Love’ is trimmed back to just under five and half minutes though taken at a slower, more reflective tempo, sans piano and given a slightly more muscular feel, the vocal more seasoned with experience of the years.

Although there’s nothing from the official release version of Time*Sex*Love*, by way of a treat you do get the love song ‘Superman’. Part of the original 2001 sessions, it only ever appeared on Time Stands Still, an incredibly rare Borders Books exclusive five-track compilation, back then it was a dreamy, strings-swathed five-minute number but now, for those in a position to compare, it runs to six minutes underpinned by a bass drum walking beat throb and circling acoustic guitar pattern, the strings pared back to subtler effect.

Driven by drums, chugging guitar and swirls of fiddle, the rolling mandolin and fiddle country rhythm of ‘Naked To The Eye’ is the choice from A Place In The World and, to these ears at least, a superior reading of the song. Her next album, The Calling, was her first on Zoe after leaving Columbia Nashville, an acclaimed artistic rebirth served here by its Dylanesque swaying title track that retains the chiming guitars and anthemic air. This was followed, three years later, by 2010’s The Age of Miracles, represented by a slower, sparser, mandolin speckled arrangement of ‘I Have A Need For Solitude’ more in keeping with the title.

A spare voice and piano hymnal on Ashes and Roses, ‘Jericho’ gets a new musical wardrobe with guitars and what sounds like harmonium, which, of the reworks, just leaves ‘What Does It Mean To Travel’ from 2016’s The Things That We Are Made Of, its acoustic chug and handclap-like percussive rhythm revised into a more fluid melody line, shedding the backing vocals along the way.

It ends, then, with the title track, a reflective, introspective number as she sings of “losses piled up like wood stacked stories high” and how “used to be that all I needed was what I didn’t possess”, Leach’s violin solo complementing the mood as she comes to the conclusion that “there is comfort in a late night kitchen radio”, wearing her heart on her sleeve like a battle scar in the knowledge that that life may at times be overwhelming, but “sometimes just the sky.” Reach for it.

Mike Davies

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Artist’s website: www.marychapincarpenter.com

‘Jericho’:

SETH LAKEMAN featuring WILDWOOD KIN – Ballads Of The Broken Few (Cooking Vinyl COOKCD644)

ballads of the broken fewIn keeping with his determination to record in unusual and inspiring locations, Lakeman set up shop in the Great Hall of an unnamed Jacobean Manor House, recording the tracks for Ballads Of The Broken Few as live. On top of which, he not only enlisted the services of legendary American producer Ethan Johns, but, having toured with them, invited Exeter based female trio Wildwood Kin (Emillie and Beth Key and cousin Meghann Loney) to be part of the project in providing harmonies.

The end result is arguably, if not necessarily his best (depending on your viewpoint), then certainly his most immediate and haunting work to date, the pared back approach proving the maxim that less can be more. The pacing throughout is slow and deliberate, imparting a reflective, melancholic air, the sound drawing on both English and Appalachian folk influences. Indeed, on the opening track, a slow march rhythm rework of the traditional ‘Willow Tree’ with percussive snaps and fiddle, the girls’ spooked cooing harmonies evoke Alison Krauss’s version of ‘Down To The River To Pray’.

It’s one of three traditional broadsides, the others being the equally stark and Appalachian coloured ‘Stranger’, and, backed just by fiddle drone and a percussive strummed guitar note, album closer ‘Pulling Hard Against The Stream’, a 19th Century moralistic song encouraging folk to support their fellows in times of trouble. There’s also a cover version, ‘Anna Lee’, the backwoods hymnal tale of a mother drowning after ignoring storm warnings written by Laurelyn Dossett and featured on Levon Helm’s Dirt Farmer,  that features just mournful fiddle, Lakeman and the girls’ harmonies.

The remaining seven songs are all originals, first up being the spiritual shaded ‘Silence Reigns’, featuring Johns on hurdy gurdy, one of the many striking numbers that suggest Southern Gothic tones, followed, in turn, by the strummed ‘Meet Me In The Twilight’, another track which, with its slow sway tempo and thematic content, conjures riverside revival tents.

Collapsing relationship number ‘Fading Sound’ harks more to the darker shades of English folk, a nervy, ominous number backed by a simple electric guitar riff with occasional burst of fiddle and the drums kicking in for the final seconds. The title track comes next, another spare, brooding listen, its bluesy chorus driven by a handclap worksong slow march rhythm, that again gathers power towards the end.

The final self-penned batch opens with the hypnotic thrum and mandolin-tinged ‘Innocent Child’, another steeped in the dank and dark corners of English folk, the girls’ harmonies reminiscent of The Smoke Fairies at their most fog-shrouded. Rather more restful and contemplative, accompanied by viola and fiddle, with understated Kin harmonies, the five-minute personal portrait ‘Whenever I’m Home’ is a yearningly poignant thoughts from the road ache. Which leaves the plucked fiddle accompanied ‘Silver Threads’, a song about enduring love as time passes, its naked vocal intermittently giving way to such full blooded refrains as “Every year that passes you will be an evergreen all etched against the sky, every day that’s granted for you and for me a tangle and twist of my twine.”

Raw, profound, simple yet resonantly complex, both a consolidation and a move forward, this surely has to be one of the leading serious contenders for album of the year at the 2017 BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards.

Mike Davies

If you would like to order a copy of an album (CD or Vinyl format), download a copy or just listen to snippets of selected tracks then click below to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website (use the left and right arrows below to scroll along or back to see the full selection).

Buying through Amazon on folking.com helps us to recover a small part of our running costs, so please order anything you need as every little purchase helps us.

Artists’ website: http://www.sethlakeman.co.uk/

‘Stranger’ – official video: