BBC – Music – Review of Mary Chapin Carpenter

Country/folk icon and multiple Grammy-winner Mary Chapin Carpenter describes her latest album as “about grief and loss”. In recent years she’s experienced divorce, serious illness and the death of her father, the accumulative trauma of which hurled her into depression.

A hard-hearted person might observe that the accompanying biography reads like a parody of country singers’ inspirations. But Ashes and Roses is certainly no summer breeze.

There’s a hint of respite from the gloom when James Taylor duets on the easy-flowing Soul Companion, but as his and Carpenter’s voices sound so similar, it’s barely a contrast. So this subdued album – more acoustic than her break-out hits – focuses on confessional lyrics and humble, understated vocals.

Recorded in Nashville, Ashes and Roses is produced by Carpenter’s regular collaborator Matt Rollings. On closer Jericho, just her voice and Rollings’ piano are present, as if all elaboration is now deemed superfluous and only the tattered scraps of residual emotion resonate for her.

Theoretically there’s an arc, a journey of healing, and songs like New Year’s Day and Fading Away offer glimmers of optimism, albeit the kind that quote Emily Dickinson. Any epiphany or upswing, however, is relative. From Transcendental Reunion – which eulogises, oddly, the restorative powers of a flight into Heathrow – the tone is set.

What to Keep And What to Throw Away is a candid meditation on her decision to “burn all the letters, delete all the photos” so that nothing reminds her of her ex. The Swords We Carried is another brutal analysis of the aftermath of love. Elsewhere, there are studies of mourning, nostalgia for childhood and the quest for a place to call home.

Like Cowboy Junkies, Carpenter believes that the quieter she sings the clearer her angst will get across. But whereas that Canadian outfit value leavening humour, she places faith in unremitting earnestness. It’s often affecting, and draws you in at times, but somewhat smothering in its unrelenting glumness. There’s also a paucity of fresh melodies here.

This profoundly personal album is unlikely to woo passers-by, but loyal, long-time admirers will adore it.

BBC – Music – Review of Sara Watkins

There are times when the country scene appears homogenised, with winsome vocalists assembled as though they were part of some cookie-cutter assembly line.  With her second solo album, Sara Watkins effortlessly bucks this depressing trend – alongside producer Blake Mills, she’s created a sound that’s gritty and determined to avoid clichés.

As a member of Nickel Creek, Watkins shone as a consummate performer, adding both depth and rigour to a blend of bluegrass and fine contemporary songwriting. That instrumental prowess continues to turn heads, though with Sun Midnight Sun it’s a more integrated affair, locked down deep into the bones and blood of the music.

There’s also a subtle electronic patina across many of the songs, adding an overdriven distortion and not just on the bass and drums. It’s as though the needles in the studio were constantly skipping into the red, coating everything with a layer of dust and dirt.

The beneficiaries of this approach include a rousing remake of Willie Nelson’s I’m a Memory and the old Everly Brothers number, You’re the One I Love.  Taken at a perilous, galloping lick with Fiona Apple’s full-throated harmony vocals along for the ride, it teeters on the edge, threatening to wheel out of control.

Yet Watkins has also allowed plenty of space from the scratchy and jagged material. Be There shimmers transcendently, a violin wreathed in layers while an unusual chord sequence plays out that hints at the fear of loss underlining the lyrics. That same nagging undertow of darkness is also present on the bittersweet Lock & Key, a deceptively simple but unflinching look into why things unravel despite our best efforts.