Wednesday, April 13, 2011

An Unlikely Chameleon

Tracy Chapman gets a bid of a bad rap (albeit not a completely undeserved one) for being a bit of a one-trick pony. Her albums can have an unfortunate feel of sameness, with many mid-tempo, slightly melancholy, acoustic guitar-driven songs drifting in and out of each other. I'm a fan (I know--I'm getting there), and even I have trouble keeping her albums straight in my head.

And yet she has an uncanny ability to toss off real, honest-to-goodness gems every once in a while, the kind of songs that make my ingrained habit of buying her albums completely justified.

In fact, probably the best song I heard last year (and, yes, it's off of an album that came out in 2008; I said I still buy her albums--just not right away all the time) is indeed a Tracy Chapman song. And it is not an acoustic pop song of the ilk you might associate with her. Instead it's a wistful piece of jazzy Tin Pan Alley-inspired songwriting, the kind of song you'd expect to hear some fey bandleader sing on Boardwalk Empire. Even the lyrics reflect a certain old-fashioned discipline in the sense of their rhyme scene and scansion. Really, it's just a great song, and one that will have me following Chapman for quite a while longer.

OK, one more. This song, also offof a more recent album, is moody, a bit dark, hushed, and strikingly angular in the melody. What it really sounds like, to me, is a lost Radiohead song. It has that same paranoid, desparate feel that so much of their music does, andyet it is very easily identifiable as a Tracy Chapman song.

Until Whenever

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