Thursday, August 5, 2010

This Is Not a Music Review

I don’t do music reviews. I am not a musician, and my knowledge of music’s technical aspects is severely limited. Then, I know if I tried to write a music review, I’d inevitably compare it to the entertaining, informative music reviews that Liz Bevarly used to do on Squawk Radio. I looked forward to those reviews. They educated me in musical genres and subgenres about which I was woefully ignorant and made me feel sophisticated and au courant on those rare occasions when I knew the music she reviewed. Remembering Liz’s music blogs would give me a severe case of writer’s block. So keep in mind that what you are about to read is not a review but an appreciation, a sharing of my delight in a CD that I’ve been listening to for a couple of months now.

I know a lot of writers listen to music when they write. Some of the best ones I know, including Julia Quinn and Jenny Crusie, share the soundtracks they create for each book. I do neither of those things. But I do turn to music when I get stuck on a particular scene or when I run into a dead end in my writing and have no idea how to turn around and head in a new direction. Music often gives me the answers I’m searching for. I’ve blogged before about finding inspiration for a scene in my first manuscript, "The Long Way Home," in Keith Urban’s “You Look Good in My Shirt.” But my favorite source for inspiration is Mary Chapin Carpenter, a singer/songwriter who found her biggest success as a country artist but whose music is an amalgam of country, folk, rock, and blues. I’ve been a fan since I first heard “Quittin’ Time” back in 1989 before her big commercial success of the early 90s. Her most recent CD, The Age of Miracles, is filled with the kind of intelligent, emotional, imaginative, truth-telling lyrics I love, lyrics that renew my own creativity.

Carpenter has been called “the most literary singer-songwriter to ever grace country music.” I think that quality is evident not only in the literary allusions one sometimes finds in her lyrics but also in her careful selection of richly connotative words and poetic turns of phrase. An avid reader, Carpenter finds inspiration in what she reads. She says, "Whether or not you actually write something from some source that you've read, or it provokes a thought that you eventually take to a song, either way it's definitely one of the places that I feel songs emanate from."

Carpenter wrote all twelve songs on Miracles. One of the most memorable songs, “Mrs. Hemingway” had its genesis in her reading of A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway’s memoir about life in Paris in the 1920s. Carpenter found herself intrigued by Hadley Richardson, the first Mrs. Hemingway, of whom the reader catches only glimpses—and those always filtered through the perceptions of her husband. She wondered what happened to Hadley after Paris, after Hemingway left her for her best friend. The result of Carpenter’s wonderings and subsequent research is a lyrical portrait of the woman who found happiness and rejected bitterness while holding on to her memories. Any romance reader should appreciate the result, and the music, first only the piano and then a symphony of gorgeous strings, will capture a romantic’s heart as well.

Love is the greatest deceiver.
It hollows you out like a drum,
suddenly nothing is certain
As if all the clouds closed the curtains and
blocked the sun.
And friends now are strangers in this city of dangers
As cold and as cruel as they come.

Sometimes I look at old pictures
And smile at how happy we were,
How easy it was to be hungry.
wasn't for fame or for money;
It was for love.
Now my copper hair's gray
as the stones on the quay
In the city where magic was.

Living in
Paris, in attics and garrets,
Where the coal merchants climb every stair,
The dance hall next door is filled with sailors and whores,
And the
music floats up through the air.
There's Sancerre and oysters, and Notre
Dame's cloisters
And time with its unerring aim,
For now we can say we
were lucky most days
And throw a rose into the Seine.

Carpenter has described her songwriting as “excavation and exploration,” and while doubtless she excavates and explores her own life to find material, she also mines the culture. Her careful attention to both inner and outer worlds allows the listener myriad points of connection. “4 June 1989” is a surprising twist on the 1989 student protests in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. The voice the listener hears is not one of the protestors but rather that of Chen Guang, then one of the armed soldiers putting down the protest, now a dissident and an artist. The final two lines are among the most poignant I ever heard.

Ah, I was seventeen that spring.
Ah, we were just obeying orders.
Ah, I
still see everything
Through the factory's yellow windows,
In the dirty
stinking river,
In the messages that find you then vanish in the ether.
They vanish in the ether:

I told them not to fear me, but history
tells the tale.
The artists and the poets fill up every jail.
Before I
held a rifle, I held an artist's brush.
Before Tiananmen, I even dreamed of

If you know Carpenter only from her best-selling 1992 album, Come On, Come On, that won her the CMA female vocalist title and placed seven hits in the Top 20, including "I Feel Lucky," "Passionate Kisses," "He Thinks He'll Keep Her" and "I Take My Chances," the closest you’ll come to finding that MCC in this album is in the sounds-like-country-radio “I Put My Ring Back On,” which like many of Carpenter’s lyrics manages to be both personal and universal. The lyrics capture the ambivalence that is part of most long-term relationships.

We can't speak like the lovers we used to be.
We can't change ancient
And love wounds with such simplicity.
And I threw it down, down
down down, down
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Time was, I'd be as
good as gone,
But last night I didn't want to run
'Cause here with you
is where I belong.
Last night I put my ring back on.

Carpenter’s deep alto is particularly suited for the favorite, introspective, intimate ballads, and she is backed to perfection by a talented group of musicians that includes the heart of her band: Matt Rollings (piano, B-3 organ), Russ Kunkel (drums), Duke Levine (electric and acoustic guitar), and Glenn Worf (bass).

For years now, I’ve claimed Carpenter’s “The End of My Pirate Days” as my theme song, but I think I may have found a new theme on this latest album: “ I have a need for solitude / I'll never be safe in crowded rooms. “ Listen.

Do you have favorite albums that you listen to over and over again? Or are you strictly a playlist person? What’s your theme song?


Debra Dixon said...

I've loved Mary C. Carpenter.

For the longest time.

Janga said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Janga said...

Wow! Debra Dixon commented on my blog! I think I'm hyperventilating here.

Isn't MCC wonderful? I think she's a writer's singer. Her songs do what we try to do with our books--grab the reader by the emotions and pull her into the story.

MsHellion said...

Those are some great lyrics. (I was not a Passionate Kisses fan; I think they played it too much, but I do think she's a great song writer.)

I loved the ones you've shared.

My go-to CDs (no M3P players for me or Ipods) are my Gary Allan CDs. I love his stuff; and I think he writes his stuff too. He doesn't have the poetical skills Mary has, with the inner and outer rhymes and stuff, but I love his stuff. It speaks to me.

I would also completely hyperventilate if Debra Dixon commented on my blog.

Janga said...

Hellion, although "Passionate Kisses" was one of MCC's biggest hits, she didn't write that one. I think Lucinda Williams, another songwriter with a poet's voice did.

I like Gary Allan too. He's pretty easy on the eyes as well. :)

quantum said...

Nice lyrics and I like her voice.

On the whole I'm a classics man and as a signature I might choose something from Holst's 'The Planets', probably Mars. *grin*

I do sometimes listen to folksy music though.

Going back many years I might choose Shirley Bassey singing 'Hey big spender':

The minute you walked in the joint
I could see you were a
man of distinction
a real big spender
Good looking, so refined
Say wouldn't you like to know
what's going on in my mind
So let me get right to the point
I don't pop my cork
for every man I see
Hey big spender
spend a little time with me ............

More recently I find that Norah Jones has a voice that I like.
As an example of her lyrics I might choose 'The Painter song'

If I were a painter
I would paint my reverie
If that's the only way for you to be with me

We'd be there together
Just like we used to be
Underneath the swirling skies for all to see

And I'm dreaming of a place
Where I could see your face
And I think my brush would take me there
But only.......................................

Ah, some of these songs bring back sweet memories!

Nice blog Janga *dreamy smile*

quantum said...

Just remembered that Norah Jones has a song entitled 'The Long Way Home'.
I believe that's the title of your book Janga!

Well I stumbled in the darkness
I'm lost and alone
Though I said I'd go before us
And show the way back home
There a light up ahead
I can't hold onto her arm
Forgive me pretty baby but I always take the long way home ..............

Any connection between book and song?

I definitely like the song and I'm pretty sure that I would like the book!

Santa said...

Sorry it took so long to stop by. Mary C. Carpenter is one of my husband's favorite singers. He's mentioned this album a few times to me. I think he's trying to tell me something.

Janga said...

Q, when I was a little girl, I loved spending time with one of my aunts who sang as she cooked and did housework. "Hey, Big Spender" was her sweeping/vacuuming song. :)

I like Norah Jones too, but the title of my book came from an MCC song, from one stanza that captures a theme of my book.

Accidents and inspiration lead you to your destination.

Or you could be the one who takes the long way home.
Roll down your window, turn off your phone,
See your life as a gift from the great unknown,
And your task is to receive it.
Tell your kid a story, hold your lover tight,
Make a joyful noise, swim naked at night.
Read a poem a day, call in well sometimes, and
Laugh when they believe it.

Janga said...

San, your husband clearly is a man of impeccable taste. He married you, and he appreciates MCC. :)

You should give the album a listen. I think you'll like it.