Carpenter's fans will feel lucky again

Review: With `Party Doll and Other Favorites,' the singer/songwriter once more shows her best side.

May 25, 1999|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

Early on in her career, interviewers would ask Mary Chapin Carpenter how a smart, tuneful singer/songwriter like her wound up being marketed as a country singer.

Invariably, she'd smile and answer that when she started recording, country labels were the only ones signing smart, tuneful singer/songwriters. Somehow, she made it sound as if she and her audience had managed to put one over on the bosses down on Nashville's Music Row.

Now, a dozen years since her first album was released, Carpenter seems much less a country music maverick. It isn't that she's changed her sound and gone Reba McEntire on us, so much that Nashville has finally caught up with Carpenter. Between the success of singers like Faith Hill and Matraca Berg, and the boom in alt-country, Nashville is not only full of smart, tuneful singer/songwriters, but seems the better for it.

In that sense, it would be hard to imagine a better time for a retrospective album like "Party Doll and Other Favorites" (Columbia 68751, arriving in stores today). Because in addition to recapping Carpenter's success as a singer and songwriter, the album also helps explain how she went from playing tiny taverns in Washington and Baltimore to doing "The Late Show with David Letterman" and Super Bowl XXXI.

As might be expected from an artist as unconventional as Carpenter, "Party Doll and Other Favorites" doesn't take the typical best-of approach. For one thing, these songs aren't really her "Greatest Hits"; among the missing are such Top-10 country hits as "Never Had It So Good" and "Tender When I Want to Be." For another, Carpenter often opts for live recordings over the more familiar studio recordings, giving us a chance to see how (if at all) success changed these songs.

Mostly, though, Carpenter offers the collection as a sort of self-portrait, using the song selection to give us a sense of how she sees herself, artistically. As she says in the liner notes, this is "an album that's less about hit-driven careers and more about what happens between those moments on the charts."

Carpenter's road-less-taken ethos goes a long way toward explaining the mild irony of the disc's title. As one of three songs recorded expressly for the album, "Party Doll" doesn't qualify as a "favorite" in the same heard-it-many-times sense as "I Feel Lucky" or "Down at the Twist and Shout."

In fact, there's a good chance you've never heard the song at all. An obscure track from a forgotten album, this "Party Doll" was originally written by Mick Jagger for his 1987 solo album "Primitive Cool." Jagger's version is brash and self-consciously country, a genre exercise reduced to caricature by his mannered, drawling delivery.

Carpenter, by contrast, doesn't try to sound "country" at all, putting the tune across as plainly and quietly as a folk song. By underplaying the song's stylistic setting, she draws our attention to its emotional core, letting us hear the deluded determination within this tale of a love faded but not forgotten. In essence, she takes material that might as easily have been considered hackneyed, and somehow reveals its singularity.

At her best, though, Carpenter has always managed to avoid the obvious. In lesser hands, "I Feel Lucky" might have been just another not-very-funny fantasy song, but Carpenter's sassy confidence perfectly conveyed the joy of thumbing your nose at fate. Likewise, the sheer zest with which she embraced the two-step verve of "Down at the Twist and Shout" more than compensated for the Cajun cliches in the lyric; too bad the show-bizzy Superbowl version included here turns that fannish enthusiasm into a "Visit Louisiana" bumper sticker.

The live "Down at the Twist and Shout" underscores the one weakness success has introduced to Carpenter's sound: an unfortunate fondness for big gestures and brassy singing. That's not to say that bigger is never better -- the extended-band version of "Can't Take Love for Granted" (recorded with the CBS Orchestra on "The Late Show with David Letterman") expertly balances power and pithiness -- but Carpenter is least convincing when she pushes both her voice and her arrangements.

Perhaps that's why the stylized blues of "Shut Up and Kiss Me" and the self-conscious Springsteenisms of "He Thinks He'll Keep Her" haven't held up as well as the simple, scenes-from-a-life storytelling that animates "Stones in the Road."

Carpenter's music works best when it draws us in, not when it bowls us over, so the best thing about "Party Doll and Other Favorites" is the space it lavishes on lesser-known gems like "This Shirt" (a classic from her club days), or her heartbreaking, hymn-like rendition of John Lennon's "Grow Old with Me."

After all, an artist's biggest hits aren't always her best efforts.

Mary Chapin Carpenter

Party Doll and Other Favorites (Columbia 68751)

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