Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Pleasantly Surprised

The first CD (not album--I had a dozen or two cassettes at the time) I owned was Tracy Chapman's eponymous debut. I new "Fast Car" from the radio and loved it, and my parents got me the CD as a present to go with my Easter basket (I was maybe 14 at the time).

The album grabbed me from the beginning, and I can still remember how happy I was to see that, when Rolling Stone did their "100 Greatest Albums of the 1980s" issue in the early 90s, they put Tracy Chapman up there at number ten. I'd stand by such accolades still today--the album I think holds up as one of the 80s freshest and most direct musical voices.

Tracy's subsequent albums were much lesser commercially speaking, with the notable exception of her mid-90s surprise hit single "Give Me One Reason," a wonderfully stripped back bluesy number. I faithfully continued purchasing each new album as it came out, and was quite pleased with some of the earlier efforts--especially the very underrated Matters of the Heart, but by this year had become a little wary of a new Chapman album, the last two or so having come across as very meh.

Enter Where You Live. I almost didn't even bother getting this disc, but the first single, "Would You Change" grabbed me a little and I was sufficiently curious to get a hold of the album, and I can happily report that it's a keeper. More so that on previous albums, she's playing with different musical sounds and ideas here, resulting in a stellar collection of songs--rich, personal, melodic examples of solid songcraft.

The song that stands out the most for me is entitled "Don't Dwell." It's a slow, moody song in a minor key that has an almost creepy feel to it, with some wonderfully soft, breathy vocals from Tracy and a wind-strewn production that gives the song an airy, cold feel. It took a few listens, but what was really grabbing me about the song eventually became evident--in the melody, in the way the sparse arrangement functions, in the off-kilter turns the melody takes, this sounds more like anything like a lost Radiohead song. And, to me, that right there encapsulates what I love about this album--that it's an album in which Chapman feels comfortable enough within her own style and idiom to try for--and nail--the aesthetic of, of all things, a Radiohead song. Brilliant. Got to iTunes and give the song (or 30 seconds of it) a listen. It's good stuff.

Until Whenever

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