Marshall Chapman

Mellowicious!

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Ever since Marshall Chapman cranked out four albums in five years during her late-'70s and early-'80s heyday, the husky-voiced roots rocker has been far less prolific. In fact, this is Chapman's first studio project in almost a decade and only second since 1991's Inside Job. She has written an autobiography during that time, but given her status as a groundbreaking female country-rock artist and the amount of years between releases, this is a relatively disappointing comeback. Chapman's voice has matured to a rugged, grainy instrument, somewhat similar to Lucinda Williams, and she hasn't lost her distinctive timber. But, as the title indicates, the disc leans to the singer's mellow side. That would be fine if it didn't seem to have been recorded on the cheap with co-producer Mike Lawler playing all the instruments. The multiple overdubs that make this possible along with an over-reliance on drum machines and various electronic keyboards to bolster the sound strips the music of much of its vigor. That's even more exasperating because these songs seem to cry out for a full band's energy. However, the keyboard-heavy approach doesn't do tunes such as the rollicking "Island Song ll" and "Downhill Slide" justice. Lovely ballads like "I Fell in Love This Morning" would fare better in a solo, unplugged format rather than being subjected to Lawler's ill-conceived production touches that undervalue the material with a dated '80s style. Only "I Love Everybody (I Love Everything)" utilizes a set of different backing musicians and its organic feel stands in contrast to the chilly quality of the rest of the disc. "Bright Red Sunset," one of this album's loveliest ballads, transcends the production, but just barely. You can't help but wonder how much better this would be with a top-notch, sympathetic outfit working with Chapman, supporting these well-written tracks with the crackling power a great group brings. But the sterile production along with a few surprisingly enervated performances, such as the limp closing rocker "Trouble with a Capital 'T'," robs Chapman of what could have been an impressive return to form after an extended absence.

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