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Mary Chapin Carpenter

Sometimes Just The Sky – 2018 (Lambent Light/Thirty Tiger)

Reviewed by Jeff Lincoln

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CDs by Mary Chapin Carpenter

Artists with Ivy League degrees are just like us, but they can see into the future a little ahead of time. Brown graduate Mary Chapin Carpenter was writing wry feminist anthems like "He Thinks He'll Keep Her" and "The Hard Way" over25 years ago. And even those songs were from her fourth studio album - Carpenter's full career spans since the late '80s. She's remained a critical fave from the start, but her luster as a country music ingenue has long worn off. It was never a mantle the New Jersey native embraced anyhow, seeing her work as more than a genre. But the lengthy stint in the business has made Carpenter nostalgic - 2016 saw new material, but the previous record, "Songs From the Movie" was a revisiting of old tunes with a full orchestra.

This release has an even wider retro mandate - remake one song from every one of her 12 studio records to date, with one new track to grow on. The rules were no hits, no story songs in someone else's character and nothing already done on "Movie." And the final score? Not great. Three songs improve from their first pass. "Heroes and Heroines" ditches the Reagan-era country schmaltz for a more intimate working. "One Small Heart" adds some terrific gospel organ punch, and "Jericho" rescues the romance from its original sullen working.

To be sure, this collection still has value for devoted fans and curiosity-seekers. It's nice to spare old gems from obscurity (e.g., a Borders Bookstore compilation) and to demonstrate that Carpenter has a rich trove of deep cuts (a reverent tip of the hat to "This is Love"). Plus, the new title track is wistful and pretty - six minutes of looking back with a bittersweet smile on life's hits and misses.

Like a Randy Newman or Leonard Cohen, Carpenter evokes expansive ideas from the tiniest of phrases. So strong is her power of suggestion, her business card could honestly say she's a hypnotist. On this collection you'll encounter lines like "A piece of land and a stubborn mind were the only things worth having" telling the story of the growth of the nation. Or take a bit like "Life would mean more/Than their name on their door" - there's not a word there longer than one syllable, but it questions the spiritual validity of the whole corporate ladder. The song "Superman" crackles with sexual energy, but it's all implication - there's nothing even PG-rated on the surface.

The frustrating thing about MCC is that her real job is supposed to be a combo: singer-songwriter. She's got Hall of Fame chops as a lyrical poet. But in album after album since the '90s, she gets ever closer to working as a spoken-word artist. Even though she has a honeycomb voice, good luck finding anything here approaching a singing "run." The hushed, low-note delivery robs from the vitality of her writing brilliance. Carpenter needs to reconnect with her own instrument and join it to more irresistible melodies. These recent retrospective rehashes have served their purpose of showing off all she's done - it's time to move past just the sky and pick a real destination.