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 hasnt rested on her laurels, mind you, and has followed up that initial release with four good albums, this one included. Unfortunately, shes been largely overlooked, even though her songwriting and musicianship have been consistent. 1995s 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 albums weakest cuts. Theyre done in a pop/rock style that Chapman has done before even though it doesnt suit her well. Its as if shes placed the songs here to try and get a hit single. Theyre 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, "Its 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 Chapmans 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. Its a little wispy at times, and occasionally it can get a little splashy in the upper registers, but luckily it is nothing too offensive. Chapmans 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 doesnt. As much as Ive liked some of Tracy Chapman's other discs, to me, at least for now, this is probably my favorite. Perhaps thats just because its new -- I dont know for sure. If you like Chapmans sound, or are just looking for an introduction to her music, I recommend this release highly.
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