Mary Chapin Carpenter is a quality package, but a package nonetheless. It’s interesting to compare Carpenter’s trajectory with that of her contemporary and sometime stage mate Nanci Griffith. Both began as neo-folkies, both landed with major country-music labels in the mid-’80s, but while Griffith ultimately rejected Nashville’s sweetening process, Carpenter thrived on it. Safely anchored in a mainstream genre, and aggressively marketed, Carpenter has sold 8 million albums; Griffith, hewing to her quirkiness, makes more interesting music and sells far fewer records.
Which is not to say that Carpenter doesn’t do plenty right, all of which is displayed on her sixth album, A Place in the World. She rocks out; she and longtime coproducer John Jennings craft ear-catching hooks; and she has full control of a burnished, instantly identifiable contralto. But there’s something a little too easily digestible, a little too media ready, here. ”Keepin’ the Faith” is a latter-day Up With People number; anyone who considers the softened-up Memphis soul of ”Let Me Into Your Heart” funky should investigate Solomon Burke and Al Green (despite Carpenter’s strenuous political correctness elsewhere, the word this tune brings to mind is rip-off). Carpenter sanitizes not only her sources but her sidemen, too: Compare lead guitarist Duke Levine’s wretchedly generic theatrics on ”The Better to Dream of You” with his stinging blues work on his own indie-label albums.
A long time ago, before she got addicted to cranked-up snare drums and Coke-ad guitar solos, Carpenter wrote some beautiful songs — ”It Don’t Bring You,” ”The Moon and St. Christopher” — the haunting work of a young artist intent on carving out her own path. She should listen harder to the muse she followed back then. B