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Tracy Chapman


Country of origin:

U.S.

Type of music generally:

Folk/rock, protest folk, mainstream pop, sometimes blues

Status:

Most recent release, Greatest Hits (compilation, 2015); most recent release of new material, Our Bright Future (2008)

See also:

The official Tracy Chapman site

Wikipedia's entry on Tracy Chapman

A fan site

Comparisons:

Her early work is reminiscent of protest-era Bob Dylan, early-'80s-era Bruce Springsteen (Tracy and Bruce were two of the most prolific musical protestors against '80s Reaganism) or Suzanne Vega. Her most recent work, with a fuller sound, has been compared to Peter Gabriel.

Covers/own material:

Writes own material, sings some covers in concert

General comments:

I really like Tracy Chapman, but find a lot of similarities in her albums. I would say that only one album of hers, any one, would be essential to have in my collection. My clear personal favourite is Tracy Chapman, and not just because it has the wonderful "Fast Car"—it's the album where her voice sounds the freshest and most original, and where her political lyrics seem the most creative and the least bombastic—mostly because here she's showing rather than telling. (Neile)

Tracy Chapman, along with Suzanne Vega, brought female-fronted folk music to the forefront and the mainstream in the late eighties. Her decidedly unsexy image—a shy African-American woman who short dreadlocks wearing jeans and a sleeveless t-shirt and playing acoustic guitar—veered against everything we had seen at that point. Perhaps only Joan Armatrading had previously entered the ranks of a black woman playing folk music, though their musical styles are quite different. Most say her eponymous debut, released in 1988 and containing the huge hit "Fast Car", is her best, but Chapman has consistently (though not too prolifically; she's released only four albums in eleven years) released socially-relevant contemporary folk music since that groundbreaking album. Her sound has expanded from the sparse arrangements of her debut, often using elements of world music and blues on her latest album. What has remained the same, for the most part, is the topics she covers—poverty, environmentalism, relationship troubles, social reproduction, women's rights, materialism, race relations—and her beautiful vocals. (miazgama@pilot.msu.edu)

Tracy's self-titled debut was the first piece of music I've ever bought for myself, so I've always had a special place for her music, and New Beginning has some great songs on it. (cinnamon@one.net)

Only a goddess could possess a soul like hers. (jsutton@rahul.net)

Comments about live performance:

And finally, the main reason I was at the Canandaigua Lilith Fair took the stage. I had never seen Tracy play live before, so it was a special treat. She opened with "Behind the Wall", making her the *second* artist I've seen start a show with that song, the first being Jewel (who I think does a terrific version of it by the way). It was very cool to see Tracy do it though—she does a pretty decent version of it too. :-) It was curious, it was almost as if my teenage self returned during "Fast Car" and "Talkin about a Revolution", chastising me for forgetting about Tracy, and reminding me just how magical she is. Phenomenal. I think Tracy was *the* highlight of the night for a large percentage of the audience, judging by the many standing ovations she got throughout her set. (kamesan@geocities.com)

Her performance, to me, superceded her albums quite frankly (meaning: wow!). She's not much of a mover while singing, but the music was right on—key, tempo, blending. A real gem. (kammerzj@peak.org)

Okay, I like Tracy Chapman fine. I saw her open for Suzanne Vega over 10 years ago before her first album came out, but I've kind of lost interest. Saying that, I can report that her set fell under the category of nicest surprise. Tracy has really loosened up over the years, especially during her killer rendition of "Take me to the River," where she danced and funked it up. I really liked the violin in her set. (colford@chlotrudis.org)

I saw a limited tour in early 1995, where Tracy came to a few towns to see how people responded and if there was interest in a new album. The show was awesome, one of the best I've ever been to. (cinnamon@one.net)

Tracy Chapman is an unbelievable live performer. She definitely loosens up from her studio albums, finding funk and nuances in all of her material. Her studio material, though I love it, definitely lacks the feeling of spontaneity we see in her live shows. I saw her in November of 1995 in Ann Arbor MI, and it's still the best concert I've ever seen. She did things with her old songs—"Fast Car", "Talkin' Bout a Revolution"—that put them in a fresh light but didn't take away their power. It was amazing.
     She's still amazing live. Chapman would be smart to release a live album—it really showcases her vision and talent better than any of her studio work. (6/00, miazgama@pilot.msu.edu)

Recommended first album:

Tracy Chapman

Recordings:


Tracy Chapman

Release info:

1988—Elektra USA—60774

Availability:

Widely available

Ecto priority:

Must have

Group members:

Tracy Chapman—vocals and acoustic guitar

Guest artists:

Denny Fongheiser—drums, percussion
Larry Klein—bass
Jack Holder—acoustic piano
Ed Black—steel guitar
Bob Marlette—keyboards
David LaFlamme—electric violin
Steve Kaplan—keyboards
Paulinho Da Costa—percussion

Produced by:

David Kershenbaum

Comments:

The most consistently powerful album. "Fast Car" and "For My Lover" are two of the most powerful folk songs I know of. (Neile)

"Fast Car" is still an amazing song as is the rest of this disc. No wonder it became a yuppie restaurant music overkill. (jmgurley@drizzle.com)

Tracy's self-titled debut was the first piece of music I've ever bought for myself, so I've always had a special place for her music.... (cinnamon@one.net)

This album is a classic. "Talkin' Bout a Revolution" is a "The Times, They Are A'Changing" for the '80s. "Fast Car" is perhaps the best protest folk ever written. "Behind the Wall" is a stark masterpiece. "For My Lover" is bluesy and superb. Sung in a choked soprano with minimal backup instrumentalization, this album is a testament to the power that music can hold. (miazgama@pilot.msu.edu)


Crossroads

Release info:

1989—Elektra USA—96088-2

Availability:

Wide availability

Ecto priority:

recommended for lovers of contemporary folk

Group members:

Tracy Chapman—vocals & acoustic guitar

Guest artists:

Denny Fongheiser—drums, percussion
Larry Klein—bass
Jack Holder—banjo, acoustic piano, acoustic stagecoach guitar
G.E. Smith—acoustic picking guitar
Bob Marlette—keyboards
Ms. Bobbye Hall—percussion
Steve Kaplan—keyboards
Neil Young—acoustic guitar, piano

Produced by:

David Kershenbaum and Tracy Chapman

Comments:

Good, but doesn't have the impact of her first album in my opinion. I think the difference for me is in the production, and how her songwriting is less subtle. (Neile)

Not as strong as first album, but has some good songs, like "Freedom Now" and title song. (jmgurley@drizzle.com)

I think my favorite Tracy Chapman album remains Crossroads (and "All That You Have is Your Soul" is one of the most beautifully gut-wrenching songs I've heard). (burka@jeffrey.net)

More personal than her debut, and slightly less political, which may explain why to some it was a letdown. But it's a fantastic album. The title track, "Subcity", and the unbelievably powerful "All That You Have is Your Soul" are all great. And "Bridges" might be her best song ever. (miazgama@pilot.msu.edu)


Matters of the Heart

Release info:

1992—Elektra USA—61215-2

Availability:

Wide availability

Ecto priority:

Recommended to fans

Group members:

Tracy Chapman—vocals and acoustic guitar

Guest artists:

Vernon Reid (of Living Colour)—electric guitar
Larry Klein—bass
Jack Holder—banjo, acoustic piano, acoustic stagecoach guitar
G.E. Smith—acoustic picking guitar
Roy Bittan—keyboards

Produced by:

Tracy Chapman and Jimmy Iovine

Comments:

The only Tracy Chapman album that didn't go gold, or for that matter the only one that hasn't gone at least double platinum, this is an underrated album. The production is perhaps the most generic of her four albums, but her passion still manages to shine through. The title track is outstanding, "Dreamin On a World" has a lovely "Imagine"-like quality, and "Open Arms" is beautiful. (miazgama@pilot.msu.edu)

New Beginning

Release info:

1995—Elektra USA—61850-2

Availability:

wide availability

Ecto priority:

highly recommended

Group members:

Tracy Chapman—vocals, acoustic guitars, electric guitar, organ
Andy Stoller—Bass and Tamboura
Rock Deadrick—Drums and Percussion
Adam Levy—Electric Guitar
Glenys Rogers—Percussion

Guest artists:

Lili Haydn—violin
Cameron Stone—cello
Eric Rigler—Scottish small-pipes and whistle
Phil Shenale—keyboards
Scott Roewe—didjeridu
John Thomas—piano

Produced by:

Don Gehman and Tracy Chapman

Comments:

I'm a bit wary about including this album because I'm not sure I've owned it long enough to properly gauge my reaction. Still, I'm a huge fan of Tracy's, and this album displays her continuing growth away from the stark sound which made her eponymous debut so striking. Highlights include "The Promise" and "Heaven Here on Earth," a song which features Scottish small-pipes to great effect. I must say that I'm terribly impressed with the inclusion of the pipes in that song's arrangement (whether at Tracy's behest or her producer's). Though I think my favorite Tracy Chapman album remains Crossroads, New Beginning is a very welcome addition to Tracy's catalog. (burka@jeffrey.net)

Tracy Chapman is truly one of the most gifted artists on the scene. New Beginning is as good, and possibly is the best thing she's done yet. Her songwriting coupled with her creamy smooth, soulful, near perfect voice connect on all fronts. "Give me One Reason" is one of those songs that just rings right down to the natural chord of your being. I rate it right in with "All That You Have is your Soul" which until now I considered Tracy's best. (jsutton@rahul.net)

This is an impossibly beautiful album. Her sound has expanded some and her voice sounds more trained, and her passion has remained. The sexy "Smoke and Ashes" and sultry "Give Me One Reason" (Tracy's first hit since "Fast Car") mesh well with such heady, heartbreaking material as "At This Point In My Life" and "Remember the Tin Man". Tracy's voice has never sounded better than in the soulful "The Promise", and the wrenching "Cold Feet" is among her finest work ever. (miazgama@pilot.msu.edu)


Telling Stories

Release info:

2000—Elektra—62478-2

Availability:

Wide

Ecto priority:

Highly recommended

Group members:

Tracy Chapman—vocals, acoustic guitar, bouzouki, electric guitar, melody harp, strum stick

Guest artists:

Tim Pierce—acoustic guitar, dobro, electric guitar, electric sitar, mandolin
Rock Deadrick, Glenys Rogers—backing vocals
Howie Hersh, Larry Klein, John Pierce, Andy Stoller—bass
Patrick Warren—chamberlain, keyboards
Denny Fongheiser—drums, percussion
Iki Levy—drum programming
Steve Hunter—dulcimer, electric guitar, lap steel
Tommy Eyre—keyboards, organ
Eric Rigler—low whistle, Uillean pipes
Mike Finnigan—organ
Jaydee Maness—pedal steel
Alex Acuna—percussion
Scarlet Rivera—violin
Emmylou Harris—guest vocals

Produced by:

David Kershenbaum and Tracy Chapman

Comments:

I was at the music store today and saw Tracy Chapman's new album Telling Stories and I thought...hmmm, I've GOT to listen to this and hmmm.. why hasn't anyone on ecto mentioned this (unless of course someone did and i missed it; quite possible) so i listened to it, just little snippets at the listening booth, but from the first seconds of the first song, i could tell it was going to be a good album. it just sounds STRONG. strong as in a strong album ie good album and strong as in gut, emotional, songwriting strength. I'm not home yet, so I haven't heard more than various snippets of various songs, but I think I'm going to love this one.
     **One week later** Indeed, I have now had a chance to listen to this album several times, and I think it's really good. And it's great to have another album by Tracy. (JoAnn Whetsell)

I basically enjoy Telling Stories. It's very mellow, and I was miffed a bit at first that Chapman didn't go along the more bluesy-rock route she showcased in "Give Me One Reason" or her electric pairing with B.B. King on his Dueces Wild album singing "The Thrill is Gone". The album is very much straight-ahead folk-rock, without the cool world music touches or surprising sexiness (on "Give Me One Reason" or "Smoke and Ashes") that she displayed throughout New Beginning.
     Still, her voice is one of the greatest in all of music—an amazing instrument that rises above her work. There are moments of very, very beautiful music on this CD—my favorites are "Unsung Psalm" (which I'd compare to New Beginning's "At This Point In My Life") and "The Only One". And she's still got the occasional political zinger in herself as well—the passionate "Nothing Yet" is a song decrying the lack of social progress African Americans have made in society, and it's good to see Chapman passionate about social causes. "Paper and Ink" is also a great, anti-materialism song.
     That being said, her tendency to repeat herself over and over again sometimes really dilutes her music, never more than in the track I always skip—"Speak the Word". And the music is just not that interesting. The straight-ahead production makes the songs run together. Only when the production is stark—and Chapman's vocals are allowed to really, really rise (her high notes have gotten better and better with age)—does the musical backing really impress. I was intrigued with the vaguely-Mellencamp-ish production of the title track and first single, but it doesn't continue throughout the album. I miss a lot of the David Gehman touches that marked New Beginning. David Kershenbaum produced Chapman's first couple albums, so I was hoping for great things, but the production is simply uninteresting.
     All in all, this is a middling release from an artist that I'll follow throughout my entire life no matter what. But at one release every five years, I was hoping for more. (miazgama@pilot.msu.edu)


Let It Rain

Release info:

2002—Elektra Entertainment Group—62803-2

Availability:

Wide

Ecto priority:

Recommended

Group members:

Tracy Chapman—acoustic guitar, clarinet, bass, electric banjo, hand claps, electric guitar, vocals and backing vocals

Guest artists:

Patrick Warren—accordion, piano, organ, tack piano, bells, keyboard
Andy Stoller—bass
Joey Waronker—drums, cajon, hand claps, tambourine, percussion, shaker
Joe Gore—electric guitar, keyboard, piano, lap steel, ukulele, bazouki, acoustic guitar, gourdolin
Greg Leisz—pedal steel, acoustic lap steel, electric guitar, electric mandoguitar, dobro, baritone guitar
Steve Hunter—electric guitar
Larry Taylor—upright bass
John Parish—bass, percussion, acoustic guitar 2, backing vocals (7)
Michael Webster—vibraphone, piano, string and oboe arrangements (10), acoustic guitar 2, cello, and vibraphone arrangements (11)
Matt Brubeck—cello
Bill Bennet—oboe
Linda Ghidossi-DeLuca—viola
Carla Kihlstedt—violin
Jeremy Cohen—violin
Jeanie Tracy, Rhonda Brice—backing vocals (2, 3, 7)

Produced by:

John Parish and Tracy Chapman

Comments:

I haven't heard much of Tracy Chapman since her debut. So it's inevitable to compare this latest album to that first one. Though it's also unfair; most people generally do not make more than one classic. It's fairer to compare Let It Rain to 1995's New Beginning. Apparently I wrote a fairly glowing review of Telling Stories, but I can't remember ever hearing that album, much less buying it. So it's interesting to ask whether Let It Rain will hold up after repeated listens. My guess is not all that well. It's a solid album. There's some interesting instrumentation, and Tracy's voice is still her wonderful, rough/smooth voice. But her lyrics don't seem as strong as they used to be, and her insights are not as fresh. (JoAnn Whetsell)

Where You Live

Release info:

2005—Atlantic Records—83803-2

Availability:

Wide

Ecto priority:

Recommended for fans

Group members:

Tracy Chapman—vocals, acoustic & electric guitar, keyboards, hand claps, clarinet, glockenspiel, strumstick, hand drum, percussion, keyboard bass, electric mandolin, electric bass, harmonica, backing vocals

Guest artists:

Flea—bass, electric bass
Mitchell Froom—harpsichord, organ, keyboards, celeste, Wurlitzer, field organ, Fender Rhodes
Joe Gore—electric guitar, acoustic guitar, lap steel, keyboards, percussion, backing vocals, keyboard bass, electric bass, dobro
Quinn—drums, percussion, hand claps, piano, glockenspiel, mazur, backing vocals
David Pilch—upright bass
Paul Bushnell—electric bass
Jared Miller—backing vocals
Michael Webster—keyboards, backing vocals

Produced by:

Tchad Blake & Tracy Chapman

Comments:

Where You Live starts out with a couple of strong songs that made me think, This one's going to be different; This one's going to be better. Sadly, the album quickly drifts off into the same nice, but unmemorable blandness Tracy's been peddling for years. (JoAnn Whetsell)

She's fallen off the popular radar of late, but this, like her previous album, show that she's turning out some of the best music of her career. (adamk@zoom.co.uk)


Further info:

For a taste of Tracy Chapman's live work, check out the "Bridge School Concerts—Volume One" compilation. It's a great CD (Heart, Beck, Patti Smith, Neil Young, Bonnie Raitt) but Tracy steals the show with her passionate performance of "All That You Have Is Your Soul". The song is powerful in the studio version, but this solo, acoustic live version is overwhelmingly so. Tracy also has a lovely version of "O Holy Night" on A Very Special Christmas Volume 3, and duetted with BB King on a crackling version of "The Thrill is Gone" on his album Deuces Wild.


Thanks to Mark Miazga and JoAnn Whetsell for work on this entry.

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Entry last updated 2015-11-23 23:58:57.
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