If you know the expression "You had me at hello," you know exactly how I felt when I listened to The Things We are Made Of, the newest recording (#14!) by Mary Chapin Carpenter. At 58, Carpenter knows about loss, the importance of memory, and the difference between shallow frippery and things that matter. It's been a long time since I've heard a record that opens with a better song than "Something Tamed Something Wild," a song destined to become a classic. It also offers perspectives that only a mature performer like Carpenter can offer. A young writer shouldn't even try a line such as: "I'm staring down the great big lonesome/As I'm listening for the dwindling of time/What else is there but the echoes of your heart/Something tamed something wild." Nor would we believe them if they sang, "So the things that matter to me now/Are different from the past/I care less about arrival/ Than just being in the path/Of some light carved out of nothing/The way it feels when the universe has smiled." Yes, folks, it's that kind of record–a masterpiece of adult wisdom burnished by experience. Carpenter sings in a much lower register these days and her tones befit the introspection of her material. Later in the album Carpenter asks, "From departure to arrival what does it mean to travel," and we know she's asking us to ponder things much deeper than being on the road. Check out the cool bass lines to "Between the Wars" and the way in which they frame fragile vocals, quiet guitar, and understated percussion. Add superb arrangements to Carpenter's lyrical and vocal excellence. If it sounds as if I'm gushing over this album, guilty as charged and I seek no mercy.
Kyle Cox offers (mostly) acoustic country with an occasional early 60s-pop vibe woven in. How to tell someone is a country singer: he compares his love for his wife as comparable to a "Trusty Ol' Pair of Boots." (My suburban-bred wife would not be amused!) The Texas-bred, Nashville-based Cox offers a fine EP titled Kyle Cox Trio and Friends, which is exactly as advertised: a five-track sampler of personal songs about the things that he values: love, friends, and family. He celebrates all three in "Richest Man Alive," and one can only applaud his contentment. I really liked the diversity of this short effort. "The One Left Behind" has the aforementioned echoes of early 60s pop, "Just Outta Reach" has catchy hooks, and "The Artist," though not gloomy, has the feel of a classic country weepy, complete with wailing pedal steel.
Brooks Dixon offers a James Taylor-like vibe on Weather the Storm and not just because one of his best songs is a love song to the Tar Heel State titled "Carolina Queen." Like Taylor, Dixon's repertoire falls into the crevice where pop, folk, jazz, and white blues tumble together and express themselves as non-taxing good-time songs. The title track, for instance, has decided Tayloresque cadences, tackles a potentially dicey situation, and turns it into sunny optimism. "Smile" also evokes Taylor in the way in which Dixon applies vocals to cascading notes to give the song a strong tongue-twisting staccato feel. Several songs feature brassy rhythm section interludes that give a bit of bite to Dixon's warm voice. The only downside is that Dixon's repertoire could benefit from a few signature tunes and sharper hooks, though. I enjoyed this record while I was listening, but the tunes faded quickly.
Ben Sollee must have raised a bit of money for his latest project, Live at Studio EM2 as it's far more polished than anything he has done in the past. That's a mixed blessing, though. Sollee is a cellist/singer with the soul of a pop star—call his style "cello-bop." "Forgotten" is typical of his approach; it's either hip or overdone, depending upon your taste, a song with the feel of Paul Simon shooting syllables through a Gatling gun. "Pretend" has a contemporary metro vibe, with Sollee's vocals the calming center of a full band production in which his cello becomes the lead percussion instrument. My favorite track was "Steeples," a nice balance of growly cello and caffeinated frenzy.
Louise Goffin has been recording since 1979, but I have to admit I've paid scant attention to the offspring of one of music's most famous couples: Gerry Goffin and Carole King. Maybe that's okay; a new collection titled The Essential Louise Goffin underwhelmed me. It has great production values and the name alone means you get to share the mic with luminaries such as Jakob Dylan ("Take a Giant Step") or the Cyanide Social Club ("Devil's Door"). But once we wipe the stardust from our face, we're left with fairly standard pop and a voice that's mid-range. Her cover of mom's "You Make Me Feel Like a NaturalWoman" sent me back to King's Tapestry and the difference is that of ordinary versus sublime.