March 2000

Tracy Chapman - Telling Stories
Elektra CD 62478
HDCD encoded
Released: 2000

by Doug Schneider

Musical Performance ****
Recording Quality ***1/2
Overall Enjoyment ****

[Reviewed on CD]Many entertainers have found it extraordinarily difficult to follow up on overnight success. Tracy Chapman exploded onto the music scene in 1988 with her self-titled debut album. It was a simply executed, folk-styled album with heartfelt songwriting and singing that caught the attention of listeners the world over. She was heralded as a modern-day Joan Armatrading and soon became an international star. I saw her live in concert promoting that album -- she opened for Bob Dylan. That kind of success is hard to replicate.

Chapman hasn’t rested on her laurels, mind you, and has followed up that initial release with four good albums, this one included. Unfortunately, she’s been largely overlooked, even though her songwriting and musicianship have been consistent. 1995’s New Beginning, for example, was outstanding. In fact, I listen to it more than her first album. Unfortunately, far too few heard it. Telling Stories, I think, will change all that and put Chapman back in the ears of a lot of listeners. It may even bring her some new fans.

As good as Telling Stories is, it gets off to a slow start, but then it soars. Tracks 1 and 3, "Telling Stories" and "Speak the Word," are the album’s weakest cuts. They’re done in a pop/rock style that Chapman has done before even though it doesn’t suit her well. It’s as if she’s placed the songs here to try and get a hit single. They’re good enough, and not worth throwing away, but they are ultimately forgettable and not up to snuff with what else is included.

Nestled between the first and third tracks is the first hint of the many gems on this album. "Less Than Strangers" is a tight folk tune that would be right at home on Chapman's first album. By track four, "It’s OK," this album takes flight with a slow, dreamy groove and smooth vocal performance by Chapman. It only gets better from that point on. My favorites are the easy "Unsung Psalm," the driving "Nothing Yet," and the excellent duet with Emmylou Harris called "The Only One." Like much of Chapman’s work, save for a couple songs, Telling Stories is another thoughtful, touching, and sometimes somber and melancholy album. It may be too downbeat for some, but not everyone can be Britney Spears. There will also be others who may criticize it for being a little too familiar. After all, Chapman has a distinctive sound. No doubt, this album is not for everyone, but for those who do like Chapman's music, what sets Telling Stories apart from Chapman's other releases is the mix of musical styles she manages to blend with her own. Her sound is still distinctive and identifiable, but she explores a little more here -- to fine effect.

Overall sound quality is good, with a smooth and clean presentation with good detail and decent resolution. High frequencies are pristine and clean-sounding, particularly when you compare this to many mass-market recordings. It’s a little wispy at times, and occasionally it can get a little splashy in the upper registers, but luckily it is nothing too offensive. Chapman’s voice is somewhat forward, but less so than in most of her other discs. It does sound good here, but a little more diffuse than I would have liked. This all would be forgivable, but what sets the sound quality back from the very best is a lack of dynamics and real bass. Drums are clean and tight, but lack wallop and impact (although they get it close on "Unsung Palm" and "Devotion"). There are hints of some really great sound, but everything sounds shelved off and compressed too much. Too bad.

While the sonic quality leaves a little to be desired, the music doesn’t. As much as I’ve liked some of Tracy Chapman's other discs, to me, at least for now, this is probably my favorite. Perhaps that’s just because it’s new -- I don’t know for sure. If you like Chapman’s sound, or are just looking for an introduction to her music, I recommend this release highly.