We all knew someone like Mary Chapin Carpenter in school — the shy, awkward duckling with the guitar who kept to herself and preferred to stay home, writing lacy poetry about what jerks the popular kids were. That side of her hampered her first few albums, which were slight, folkie affairs. But on 1992’s Come On Come On, Carpenter for once sounded as if she’d emerged from that solitary room. She hardly sounded like an ornery blues mama, but her square-jawed voice, leaner lyrics, and the sturdy-as-a-wooden-fence folk rock combined to make a deserved double-platinum breakthrough.
Apparently, Carpenter has taken her success to mean it’s okay to return to the preciousness of her early work, since Stones in the Road (Columbia) suffers from that dreaded musical disease, OFAS (Overambitious Follow-up Album Syndrome). The album is almost overwhelmed by forlorn ballads gently fingerpicked on acoustic guitars. The title track attempts to be her ”End of the Innocence” — a where-did-we-go-wrong chronicle of our culture’s tumble into self-absorption and cynicism. There are some wordy story songs and a crack at a piano- lounge ballad. What there isn’t is the flow and energy of Come On, not to mention the eye for concise detail: ”A Keeper for Every Flame,” one of her lonely-hearts-club songs, doesn’t have the narrative drive of ”He Thinks He’ll Keep Her.”
Whether the experience is tragic or uplifting, Carpenter sounds like someone who sits down and thinks about it — a lot — before committing it to song. Not since the heyday of Gordon Lightfoot has a singer-songwriter been so damn reasonable. That’s not a bad thing, but during ”Stones in the Road,” you keep hoping for her to show some emotion, get a little angry about the situation. Instead, she comes off as a hip, weary social-studies teacher holding a folk mass in her classroom. This wan tendency comes to its unfortunate climax on ”This Is Love”: The lyrics (”I’m standing here now with my heart held out to you”) possess the necessary enthusiasm, but Carpenter’s dispassionate delivery barely conveys it.
Stones has an equal number of shining moments. With the exception of Reba McEntire, who tries on a gutsy song topic between blatant attempts at pop crossover, few in country music attempt such dark material as ”John Doe No. 24,” a song about a deaf and blind boy found wandering the streets of New Orleans who eventually takes his own life. ”Why Walk When You Can Fly” finds Carpenter wandering into the Appalachian backwoods for a fiddle-driven sing- along, and a modest Tex-Mex swing matches the headstrong sentiments of ”Tender When I Want to Be.” The uptempo, almost-novelty ”Shut Up and Kiss Me” (this album’s ”Down at the Twist and Shout”) has the slide-guitar sass of Bonnie Raitt but could use the latter’s devilish streak. What the album needs more of are moments like ”Outside Looking In,” which is Carpenter at her plainspoken best — simple but effective lyrics (”Baby, it’s all in the eyes, it’s where the reckoning begins/It’s where we linger like a sigh, it’s where we long to be pulled in”) kicked into gear by a lilting hook, a ringing electric-guitar line, and the beefy drumming of John Mellencamp percussionist Kenny Aronoff.
As the song says, Carpenter remains a loner — the kid in the bedroom — but working in what has become the pretty extroverted field of country music. It’s easy to admire her in that respect: From her Ivy League background to her unglamorous, no-hairspray image, she’s never fit any of the women-in-country stereotypes. Stones in the Road was recorded, as usual, near her home in Virginia, not in Nashville, and she wrote all 13 songs and coproduced with longtime partner John Jennings. (It’s impossible to imagine, say, Trisha Yearwood doing all that.) But as Stones in the Road often hammers home, even outsiders need to get out once in a while. B
Stones in the Road