Reviewed on this page:
Tracy Chapman - Crossroads -
Matters of the Heart - New Beginning -
Telling Stories - Let It Rain -
Where You Live - Our Bright Future
Tracy Chapman emerged from obscurity in 1988 to become an unlikely
pop star: a harsh-voiced black woman who made no concessions to
fashion or "femininity," singing stark leftist songs that didn't
have happy endings. Then, more predictably, she returned to
obscurity... Her 1995 album was hoped to spark her comeback,
and after a slow start the surprise hit single "Give Me One Reason" propelled her back to platinum status. (DBW)
Tracy Chapman (1988)
This album singlehandedly led many to believe that a rebirth of
female folk singer-songwriters was happening. Spare arrangements
and lyrics that are as intellectually intriguing as they are
emotionally moving. The hit "Fast Car" is here, of course, and
brilliant song after brilliant song: the quiet but powerful "Talkin'
Bout A Revolution," the Caribbean-influenced "Mountains O' Things,"
the folk-rocking "Why?," the tender acoustic "Baby Can I Hold You?"
(remade by somebody in a hit reggae version). The only track you
could possibly consider weak is the anti-racist exhortation "Across The Lines."
Session players include Larry Klein, then Joni
Mitchell's husband, on bass, David LaFlamme on violin, and Paulinho Da Costa on percussion. (DBW)
Several powerful love songs ("Bridges," "A Hundred Years," "This
Time"), but the rest of the album isn't up to standard: she's
defensive on the title song and "Born To Fight," two mediocre songs
go on interminably ("All That You Have Is Your Soul" and
"Subcity"), and her political musings are vaguer - maybe it was from
hanging around with Sting on that Amnesty tour. Guests this time
around include Neil Young, Klein again,
veteran drummer Russ Kunkel, both Bobbye Hall and Paulinho Da Costa
on percussion and "Saturday Night Live" bandleader G.E. Smith on
Matters Of The Heart (1992)
Her formula is showing here; the melancholy and subdued-ness may be
genuine, but they don't sound fresh or arresting anymore, except on
the single "Bang Bang Bang" (on poverty and violence) and "Woman's
Work." Part of the problem is that she's not writing distinct melodies, and there's not much variety in the instrumentation, so
the songs start to blend into each other. Guests include an
amazingly low-key Vernon Reid, Tony
Levin, and Manú Katche. (DBW)
New Beginning (1995)
Chapman can still write great songs: "Tell It Like It Is" has
gripping guitar lines and pointed lyrics. But too often she settles
for tame folk-pop arrangements (every track is with a full band),
routine melodies, and lyrics so stripped of poetry they read like
twelve-step meeting testimonials ("At This Point In My Life")
or political leaflets ("Start All Over," "Rape Of The World").
A couple of times there's some cleverness as she works extended
metaphors (the single "Smoke and Ashes" - another documentation of
a failed love affair - and the story-song "Cold Feet") but she's
on very well-cultivated territory. Also, the songs are bloated:
every tune except the hit "Give Me One Reason" - an effective blues left
over from 1986 - is at least 4:56, and there just isn't enough
going on to justify those long running times. (There is a brief uncredited tune tacked onto the end of the CD.) (DBW)
Telling Stories (2000)
It seems Chapman's never going to break out of her full-band folk-rock formula, so the only points worth discussing are the clarity of her
lyrics and catchiness of her melodies. (To be fair, she does stretch herself a liiittle bit, playing bouzouki on one cut and melody harp on
another.) The lyrics are sharp, original and concise: the ruthless self-examinations ("Unsung Psalm"), the keen-eyed
deconstructions of romance ("It's OK," title track) and a couple of political laments ("Nothing Yet," "Paper And Ink").
The melodies, though, are nothing special, aside from a couple of winners like "Wedding Song." Good news for her fans, certainly, but
still not up to the standard of her first two albums.
Emmylous Harris guests, and the supporting cast is Tim Pierce, Steve Hunter (guitar); Howie Hersh, Klein, Andy Stoller (bass);
Denny Fongheiser, Alex Acuña (drums and percussion); Patrick Warren, Tommy Eyre, Mike
Finnegan (keyboards); and Scarlet Rivera (violin).
Produced by David Kershenbaum and Chapman.
Let It Rain (2002)
What can I say about this record that I haven't already said about all of Chapman's other records? It's dour: the most
cheerful tune is the celebration of death "Say Hallelujah," while most are laments ("Broken," the ironically titled
"Happy"). It's long: most songs run about five minutes, aside from the instrumental "Over In Love." It's folk-rock: acoustic
guitars drive everything, decorated by the occasional accordion, dobro or steel guitar. It's dull: the melodies sound
instantly familiar, but none stick with you, and since nearly everything's in the same tempo and dynamics changes are rare,
the album is like one endless track. The only distinguishing characteristic I can find is that the politics are less explicit than usual:
aside from "Hard Wired," a clumsy attack on consumer culture, most tracks are about failed love ("You're The One") or
failure in general ("Almost")... even the concluding "I Am Yours" is not really committal ("I am yours/If you are mine").
Musicians include Joe Gore (guitar and keyboards), Greg Leisz (guitar), Michael Webster (keys), Joey Waronker (drums)
plus holdovers Hunter, Warren and Stoller; a string section appears on "Goodbye." Produced by John Parish and Chapman.
Where You Live (2005)
Produced by Tchad Blake and Chapman, and it's much snappier than anything she's
done since the 80s: more than half the tunes are under four minutes apiece ("Taken") and the mood is energetic (the blistering diatribe "America") as often as not ("Taken").
The arrangements stick close to her usual folk-rock, with some wrinkles like the hurdy-gurdy keyboards on "Talk To You"
and the spare, bass-less "Don't Dwell."
Lyrically she's in good form, both in social commentary ("3,000 Miles" about teenage runaways) and romance ("Love's Proof") modes; she also has a few more general statements with quasi-religious themes ("Before Easter").
The melodies are simple but sturdy ("Change"; the hymnlike "Be And Be Not Afraid").
Gore, Mitchell Froom, and drummer Quinn are the core backup band;
Flea plays bass on several cuts ("Change").
Our Bright Future (2008)
Consistency is a virtue, but Chapman's pushing it. Yet another gentle, quiet, reasonably tuneful folk album, with the usual spiritual ("Save Us All") and personal ("I Did It All") musings (nothing overtly political this time). There are a few interesting arranging touches - prominent, slow-moving strings on "The First Person On Earth" - and she never gets carried away with excessive running times or belabored metaphors.
Often, though, it's so slight and self-effacing you may forget the disc is spinning ("For A Dream").
The relatively cheerful "Sing For You" was the single.
Produced by Chapman and Klein.
Start all over.