Mary Chapin Carpenter, "The Things That We Are Made Of" (Lambent Light Records/Thirty Tigers)
Mary Chapin Carpenter at her best doesn't really do mainstream country. She's tried here and there, as with the too-catchy but Grammy-winning "Shut Up and Kiss Me," but she's always been better when she wasn't straining for a hit.
On her latest release, "The Things That We Are Made Of," the five-time Grammy winner is back in her comfort zone with an evocative collection of songs backed by a soothing guitar-piano ensemble with occasional violin touches — and, yes, on this record, it's more violin than fiddle.
Carpenter's finest work could best be described as ache-country, or maybe Sunday-morning back porch music. It's polite and unobtrusive, but still capable of drawing listeners in with an unexpectedly poignant turn of phrase. She's at a different place in her life now but still looking for emotional connections — whether walking through New York pondering the underappreciated gospel legend Sister Rosetta Tharpe or driving down a lonely road.
"I'm staring down the great big lonesome," she sings wistfully on "Something Tamed Something Wild." ''As I'm listening for the dwindling of time."
The album is put together with flair by red-hot producer Dave Cobb, whose work with Jason Isbell, Chris Stapleton and others has brought some dignity back to the airwaves in recent years. He's a good match for Carpenter's warm, conversational voice, and the elegant production lends gravity to her perspective as an artist further along in her career.
Carpenter's album fits neatly into NPR Music's First Listen series, where it's streaming exclusively. It's easy to picture these sweetly gentle songs being met with approving murmurs by an NPR-influenced crowd at Nashville's Bluebird Cafe or some other quiet venue.
Or even on the back porch on a quiet Sunday morning.