The Calling is Mary Chapin Carpenter's Zo/Rounder Records debut and features 13 brand new songs. The album was recorded with keyboard virtuoso Matt Rollings (Lyle Lovett, Keith Urban) with whom Carpenter co-produced her critically-acclaimed previous CD Between & Here & Gone. The CD features all new original songs.
In recent years, Mary Chapin Carpenter--once among the most promising stars of the folkie infiltration of Nashville ("Down at the Twist and Shout," "I Feel Lucky")--abandoned all desire to dot the country music charts. Free of that ill-fitting yoke she returned to being what she really was all along: A literate acoustic singer-songwriter. In 2004, she released a tour de force, Between Here and Gone
, which combined affecting social commentary on the events of 9/11 with personal meditations on her changed life as a married woman living in rural Virginia. The Calling
picks up where that album left off, using the same co-producer, pianist Matt Rollings, and core musicians, including John Jennings, who helped Carpenter shape her sonic landscape some 20 years ago. If the new album goes farther in advocating a political conscience--"On with the Song" takes jabs at the jingoistic rubes who dissed the Dixie Chicks, while "Why Shouldn't We" insists we'll have worthy heroes in office again one day--it largely invokes the same quiet, warm, and conversational tone as its predecessor. On the whisper-soft "Twilight," which frames a perfect, peaceful evening with a nearly spiritual grace, a listener might easily imagine himself chatting with the artist about long-held secrets and shared experiences, the Blue Ridge Mountains looming in the background. That is part of Carpenters gift--connecting with her audience's shadow self, using her deeply nuanced alto to fill even the simplest words with profound knowing. As a pure craftsman, however, she ranks with the giants of past generations in capturing the small, bruised hearts seemingly lost in the chaos of a catastrophic event. "Houston," one such song here, recalls Woody Guthrie's great "Deportee" in its power and the pathos of the Hurricane Katrina victims who were forced to evacuate their homes, leaving everything behind but fear and hope. "Mama's got her baby/Sleeping in a grocery cart," it begins, at once setting up a picture of wrenching desperation. Carpenter, no stranger to blue moods herself, knows how tough it is to emerge from a dark period of pained restlessness to find one's very self again. The album's soothing closer, "Bright Morning Star," like much of the record as a whole, offers a beacon of light and safe harbor for those shipwrecked on life's rocky shores. --Alanna Nash