A new sound to Mary Chapin Carpenter's finest work

Doug Gallant, The Guardian
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On Songs from the Movie, singer works her magic with the help of a full orchestra and chorus

Mary Chapin Carpenter has long been considered one of America’s finest singer-songwriters.

And with good reason.

The Grammy Award-winning artist has been responsible for some of the most extraordinary records to come out of Nashville over the past 25 years.

Included in that number is one I regard as one of my favourite records of all time, Stones In The Road, the record that gave us songs like Where Time Stands Still, Why Walk When You Can Fly, Stones In The Road and Shut Up and Kiss Me.

The New Jersey-born Carpenter, whose folk-influenced songwriting style set her apart from the Nashville establishment when she first began to record there in the 1980s, has earned the respect of many of her peers for her refusal to follow any path but her own.

She has always taken her music where she thinks it needs to go, regardless of style or genre.

Still, I was surprised to learn that for her latest project, Songs From the Movie, she had decided to re-imagine some of her most beloved songs with the help of a 63-piece orchestra and a 15-voice choir.

Initially, I was somewhat apprehensive about hearing songs I’d come to love, in part for the beautiful simplicity of their arrangements, churned out with a full orchestra and chorus.

But after listening to the first two tracks, On and On It Goes from 2007’s The Calling and I Am A Town, from 1992’s Come On Come On, my apprehension gave way to something more akin to wonder.

Some songs lend themselves well to orchestral treatment, some do not.

Carpenter’s songs do. And I should have expected that, given the way she writes.

Instead of the overblown, overproduced representations of past glories I had feared, what I found on Songs from the Movie were sympathetic arrangements that gave her material new depth and seldom, if ever, overpowered Carpenter’s vocals or, worse, overpowered the songs themselves.

Having a producer who knows how to work with both pop singers and orchestras, I suspect, made a huge difference.

Carpenter collaborated here with composer/arranger and producer Vince Mendoza who has worked in the past with such diverse artists as Sting, Joni Mitchell, Elvis Costello and Diana Krall.

Serving as co-producer was Matt Rollings who has worked on several of Carpenter’s previous records, in addition to working with people like Keith Urban and Lyle Lovett. Together, they have crafted something very special.

Songs From the Movie draws its inspiration in part from Carpenter’s love of classic films and symphonic music. And the record does, as the title suggests, have the feel of movie soundtrack, the kind of soundtrack you might expect to come from someone like a James Horner or a Randy Newman.

Carpenter, who recorded the record at London’s legendary AIR Studios, said part of the challenge of this new musical setting was to find the right approach to singing each song.

“Singing with an orchestra is very different from singing with a band,” Carpenter said in the record’s release notes.

“I had to learn to ride the enormous wave of sound an orchestra produces but not over sing at the same time — finding a quiet voice while still conveying strength was the way in.”

And she did indeed find her way in. There are wonderful versions of Come On Come On, On And On It Goes, I Am A Town, Goodnight America, The Dreaming Road, Where Time Stands Still and Mrs. Hemingway.

I don’t think Songs from the Movie will alienate any of Carpenter’s existing fan base.

And it may very will bring others into the fold who, until now, have failed to comprehend the depth of her writing, denying themselves the pleasure of hearing a truly gifted artist because of her affiliation with Nashville. Yes, there are some people out there who still think the only things that come out of Nashville are sad songs about divorce, lost pick-up trucks and liquor.

I love this record.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.


Doug Gallant, a reporter with The Guardian, writes his music review column for The Guardian every week. He welcomes comments from readers at dgallant@theguardian.pe.ca or 629-6000, ext. 6057.



Organizations: The Guardian, AIR Studios

Geographic location: Nashville, America, Kiss Me.The New Jersey London The Dreaming Road

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