Stones In The Road

Mary Chapin Carpenter

Columbia Records, 1994

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Mary Chapin Carpenter's long-time musical collaborator/co-producer/guitarist John Jennings has called her voice "an invitation to intimacy." Not physical intimacy, he's quick to add, but the emotional kind. And truly, her honey-sweet tone and masterful phrasing on everything from the stillest of her ballads to her hardest-rocking flirtations suggest he's zeroed on one of the keys to her appeal.

What amazes me as a listener on this particular album, however, is not so much the skill of the singer as it is the power of the songs. In a development that will undoubtedly come as a shock to people who have bought into some of the more insulting stereotypes of "country" music, this album is one of the wisest I've ever heard. Every single lyric is infused with an intelligence and emotional maturity that's by turns startling and engrossing.

"In this world there's a whole lot of trouble baby / In this world there's a whole lot of pain / In this world there's a whole lot of trouble but / A whole lot of ground to gain," Carpenter begins, establishing the theme of resiliency that echoes through this entire album, even as the song's country-gospel sound - anchored by piano, fiddle and a chorus of background vocalists - reinforces its spiritual undercurrents.

As if constructing a novel, she moves then from establishing her principal theme to a bit of character history, illustrating in the steadily-rocking "House Of Cards," a possibly autobiographical vision of a suburban childhood where "On the surface it looked so safe / But it was perilous underneath." In the title tune that follows, the search for emotional connections that ring true extends from the family out into the broader society. A folkish hymn to lost innocence, "Stones in the Road" places on the table the idealism of a generation that admired Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy - and then carves up the self-satisfaction it has degenerated into: "We pencil in, we cancel out, we crave the corner suite / We kiss your ass, we make you hold, we doctor the receipt... A thousand points of light or shame / Baby, I don't know."my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Turning inward once again, Carpenter then steers us through a melodic, fully-realized series of life lessons. First "Tender When I Want To Be" makes a rippling plea for breaking down emotional barriers ("Don't ever let me hesitate / To be tender when I want to be"). Then "A Keeper For Every Flame" offers a sharp little fable about the way romantic longing sometimes overpowers realism ("I thought my heart was broken but it was just a little bruised / I thought love had spoken, guess I was just confused"). Soon after, the title of "The Last Word" serves as the unsung punchline to a stark, compelling retelling of two lovers' final confrontation: "I finally realized / You need it more than you need me / You can have it, I don't want it, and when you've got it, I'll be gone."

Leavening the mix smack in the middle of the album is "Shut Up And Kiss Me," a rollicking come-on that nonetheless has wisdom aplenty of its own to impart: "There's something about the silent type / Attracting me to you / All business baby, none of the hype / That no talker can live up to." Some juicy slide guitar from Lee Roy Parnell and Trisha Yearwood's background vocals round out this five minute party/intermission, before it's back to business with several more well-crafted looks at the ways we constantly search for connections (including the remarkable "John Doe No. 24," with its soaring Branford Marsalis sax work).

Finally, Carpenter falls back as if spent to the core of her argument: the key to resiliency is love - but not necessarily romantic love. The purest love, she argues in the closing "This is Love," is less about passion and romance than it is about a fundamental commitment to the other person's emotional well-being. It is a love that, in the end, grants you peace by being able to overcome even the hardest of hard feelings (a theme Don Henley hit a career peak on with "The Heart Of The Matter"). Listen in for a minute as the piano rolls to a steadily ascending beat, crowned by the last line:

"And I see you still and there's this catch in my throat and

I just swallow hard til it leaves me

There's nothing in this world that can change what we know

Still I know I am here if you ever need me

And this is love"

For anyone who's ever experienced any real turbulence in their relationships, these lines are likely to carry the power of well-delivered two-by-four. Love hurts, Carpenter seems to say, but when we succeed in riding that pain out and returning to our eternal search for connection, we win the only battle we'll ever really need to in our lifetime. To me, the thirteen exceptionally well-written and played songs on Stones In The Road speak wisdom of a quality that is as rare in popular music as true love is in life itself.

Rating: A

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© 1997 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Columbia Records, and is used for informational purposes only.