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Tracy Chapman 

Telling Stories

Tracy Chapman
Telling Stories
(Elektra)

We fell in love with Tracy Chapman for the simple, sobering folk songs on her 1988 self-titled debut, an album that yielded the hit song "Fast Car." At a time when shallow rock and pop topped the charts, Chapman's songs not only provided a breath of fresh air, but also served as a wake-up call. Chapman, a Cleveland native, put a political spin on her music and sang about tough times, survival, and poverty. Finally, here was someone using honesty and personal experience to write about things that really mattered. In 1989, Chapman released Crossroads, which, because of its predecessor's popularity and because people expected a sequel to "Fast Car," received mixed reviews and sold poorly. She then took three years off before recording 1992's Matters of the Heart and then 1995's New Beginning, which boasted uplifting messages, but didn't measure up to her debut.

Chapman's latest album, Telling Stories, contains elements from her earlier work, but isn't simply backward looking -- it also introduces a new style of songwriting, as Chapman makes the most out of her rich voice. And by mixing folk with, in this case, a bit of country, Chapman reminds us that her talent resides in her ability to blend genres. The 11-song album holds true to its title, and Chapman tells poetic stories about strength, pain, and love. In "Paper and Ink," one of the album's standouts, she makes her anti-consumer message perfectly clear, singing "Money's only paper only ink/We'll destroy ourselves if we can't agree." Guest vocals by Emmylou Harris along with sounds of mandolin, melody harp, and pedal steel give the track a bona fide country quality -- and that sound resonates throughout the rest of the album. At a time when music is undergoing experimental overhauls, Chapman continues to thrive by sticking to what works best for her -- straightforward songs performed beautifully. -- Amy Schroeder

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