‘Tuned In’ review: Mary Chapin Carpenter’s songs build power behind her lyrics

Mary Chapin Carpenter poster

Mary Chapin Carpenter poster

'Songs From the Movie' by Mary Chapin Carpenter

"Songs From the Movie" by Mary Chapin Carpenter

Mary Chapin Carpenter reorganizes, re-records and repurposes her material for the new “Songs From the Movie,” her first orchestral album.

It’s not a far-fetched move: Carpenter’s folk-pop music has a sophisticated and typically low-key air about it anyway, and the arrangements on “Songs From the Movie” are more softly lush than showy. What’s more, Carpenter isn’t goaded by strings and horns to bellow out of her comfort zone: She is just as restrained, if not more so, than usual.

So nothing upstages Carpenter’s lyrics – there are no distractions due to over-emoting, no overshadowing by orchestral whims. Her tone is even and the music gorgeous as the gravity of Carpenter’s poetry sets in.

And really, this is poetry all its own, apart from music. It may be too high-minded for some tastes as she trips through existentialism and searches for meaning in life. But “Songs From the Movie” is a stately attempt by an articulate woman trying to make sense of her world.

It’s a brave move by Carpenter. The contemplative lyrics may be the same, but words set to an acoustic guitar simply create a different context than words set to strings. Orchestration makes these songs seem more important now – some might say by way of artificial decoration – but they feel different all the same.

After the billowy set up of “I Am a Town” settles into brushed rhythm, Carpenter paints an evocative scene of Anywhere, U.S.A.: “I’m the pines behind the graveyard and the cool beneath their shade” Supported by angelic backing vocals on “Ideas Are Like Stars,” she sings of “the sepia tones of a lost afternoon,” and her realizations seem to empower her in the symphonic “Between Here and Gone” as she notes, “This emptiness is something not to fear.”

It isn’t always abstract, either. Carpenter is direct with “The Dreaming Road’s” heartbreaking lines such as, “I loved you more than life, and I guess that’s why I died when you would not love me back.” Meanwhile, her straightforward tribute to a protective older sibling, “Only a Dream,” is especially touching.

Some might tire of her seemingly one-dimensional delivery, her tone rarely shifting from quiet strength as she throws all focus to her words.

But at least Carpenter has the words to back it up.

Rating: 3.5 stars (out of five)

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