It’s a challenge to summarize Mary Chapin Carpenter’s deep catalogue on one disc, but this Essential release does a fine job of surveying the impressive range and sophistication of the singer-songwriter’s music over the past decade-plus. Oddly, the disc bypasses Carpenter’s debut album, Hometown Girl, and includes only one song from her stunning sophomore effort, State of the Heart — a jangly cover of “Quittin’ Time,” which for emotional insight, brutal honesty, and tunefulness is of a piece with her own work anyway. Otherwise, Essential offers one formidable performance, one penetrating lyric after another, mostly dealing with the yin-yang of relationships. Highlights are many, due to Carpenter’s stylistic diversity. The scabrous rocker “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her” delineates a woman’s spirit being snuffed out in a stifling marriage to a doltish hubby, while the steady, mid-tempo “The Hard Way” is an impassioned plea to a lover to stay connected through the tough times. Also of note is Carpenter’s classic, driving take on Lucinda Williams‘s “Passionate Kisses,” as well as saucy good-time numbers, such as “I Feel Lucky” and the Cajun-flavored workout “Down at the Twist and Shout,” enlivened by the contributions of BeauSoleil avec Michael Doucet. And bringing us to the present are two gems from Carpenter’s most recent album, Time*Sex*Love: “The Long Way Home,” a brutal screed detailing lives trapped in a limbo of predictability, and “Late for Your Life,” a quiet, largely acoustic meditation on believing in chance and faith. Essential provides meaty texts and great music, though it’s but a taste of this impressive artist’s ongoing work.

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Weight 8 oz


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