Come On Come On

Mary Chapin Carpenter

Columbia, 1992

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Sometimes the hardest albums to review are the one you know the best.

Mary Chapin Carpenter’s 1992 breakthrough album Come On Come On has been on my list of all-time favorites for over 15 years now, but the thought of explaining how and why that is still seems daunting. With three Top Ten country singles and a passel of industry awards, you might think the appeal would be obvious, but it isn’t that simple, and therein lies the story.

In 1992 it was anything but obvious that Mary Chapin Carpenter was on the brink of becoming one of modern country music’s shining stars. Yes, her gentle, largely introspective music had won her a regional following around her hometown of Washington, D.C., but her style was more folk than country and her distinctly feminist attitude and literary songwriting approach made her an outsider with mainstream country radio.

That said, Carpenter had scored a couple of minor hits off her 1989 sophomore album State Of The Heart (“Quittin’ Time” and “Never Had It So Good”) and followed it with a number two off her 1990 disc my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 Shooting Straight In The Dark, the Cajun-tinged “Down At The Twist And Shout.”

The magic of this album lies in three elements.

First is the pitch-perfect brew of styles, mixing jangly, upbeat country-rock tunes like the perceptive “The Hard Way” and the sassy “I Feel Lucky” with deeply introspective folk numbers like “Rhythm Of The Blues” and the moving “Only A Dream.” The one rather traditionalist tune, “Not To Much To Ask,” a sentimental duet with Joe Diffie, sets up beautifully the ringing anthem which follows, “Passionate Kisses.”

Second is the sheer quality of the songs. The driving “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her” – a number one hit – is a fierce and memorable declaration of independence from a taken-for-granted spouse. “Only A Dream” renders the turbulence and uncertainty of growing up in a troubled household in a gorgeous, plaintive ballad. And the covers Carpenter chooses are nothing short of spectacular, as she turns Mark Knopfler’s typically acerbic “The Bug” into a fount of hard-earned wisdom and invests Lucinda Williams’ “Passionate Kisses” with all the throaty determination it demands.

Third is the crisp and clean yet airy and organic production by Carpenter’s longtime guitarist and collaborator John Jennings and Carpenter herself. It’s an approach that provides a natural showcase for the warmth of Carpenter’s voice and the humanity of these songs, burnishing them gently until they positively glow. The choice to present the closing title tune as a spare lament to lost innocence and regret is nothing short of brilliant, and the background chorus of Carpenter, Jennings and Shawn Colvin nothing short of haunting.

Put it all together and give it a run order that’s as thoughtfully paced as a three-act play and you’ve got an album that you can (and I did) stick in the player and listen to all the way through over and over and over.

And I wasn’t alone; Come On Come On won a Grammy and cemented Carpenter’s place as one of the leading voices of modern country music, bringing contemporary themes and values and a deft mix of country, folk, rock and pop stylings into what had been an inwardly-focused and deeply traditionalist genre. It’s a landmark album from one of the most talented singer-songwriters of her generation, and one that belongs in the collection of any fan of modern country, folk or singer-songwriter music.

Rating: A

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© 2008 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, and is used for informational purposes only.