Beth Nielsen Chapman – Crazy Town: Album Review

Astonishing later life flourish of new wave rhythms from this polished songwriter, blowing away, and some, any earlier stereotyping.

Release date: 23rd September 2022

Label: Cooking Vinyl

Format: CD / Vinyl / Digital

b n chapman

Let’s get this straight, Ms Chapman can write a classy tune and some. But the list of songs she is best known for, tend, let’s say, to err on the side of torchy ballads. Fabulous torchy ballads, but seldom disturbing the peace, which was how, don’t shoot me, I first came across her, via the plaudits of one Terry Wogan. A pouringly smooth vocal tone and a sublime grasp of melody together gave her songs of life’s hurdles and losses made for achingly sad songs. And with cancer and widowhood all part of her journey, hell, yes, she knew what she was singing about. Well, this isn’t, or seems not to be, the same woman. Except the songs and their hooks betray no mere novice at this game, and give her game away. Plus, as this is being posted here, the notoriously Fairportophilic At The Barrier, let’s not forget that who backed her on her third album, included Mssrs. Simon Nicol and Maartin Allcock, with Maart subsequently being her UK tour musical director up until his untimely death.

For this record, she deliberately took the challenge of playing the songs as live as was possible, working with a crack band of musicians unknown to her. “Put me together a slamming band,” she said to producer, Ray Kennedy, who has helmed records by everyone from Lucinda through to Steve Earle. That he did, and, with most songs played straight, she ditched her original plan to re-record the vocals, keeping the studio guide track originals, so much did they reflect the live experience.

All Around The World kicks off with aplomb, a powerpop explosion, a cross between a Beatle-y melody and the passion of Linda Parry. A very George guitar solo adds to that mood, and it points well the direction of flow. Little in the way of surprise to learn Graham Gouldman had a hand in it. The timbre then steps up a gear, with the unequivocal statement of Put A Woman In Charge, a co-write with Keb Mo’, whose own version, with Roseanne Cash, seemed a bid for Clinton over Trump. Neilsen’s own version comes across a whole less particular, just wanting a woman, on, largely, humanitarian grounds. (Let’s hope she has a finger-crossed policy for our own dear current PM.) It is a compelling argument she peddles, and it is a quirky mix of hook and polemic. Go, Beth! Already it is clear this is a revitalised singer. 4 Leaf Clover slows things down, with a sassy country tinge to it, a raggedier feel than she is known for, electric piano, steel and trumpet gilding the (fading?) lily, out on an equal opportunity cruise for love. 

Just when you have forgotten she can, she then effortlessly unsheathes a trademark no holds barred cigarette lighter of a song, With Time, the feel very much in the molasses and milk of a James Taylor standard. It’s lovely, but, you know, it’s out of place here, just as the joy of new Beth is solidifying, somehow the strings here are just a tad too gloopy. Just for this record, I should add. Dancin’ With The Past follows, and has an attractive 60s sheen, the Searchers with added pedal steel, her vocal now all over the place, in a good way, conspiratorial in tone and completely out of damns to give. The swampy The Truth, a standout sister alongside Put A Woman In Charge, smoulders through similar lyrical territory, this time addressing the plight of the planet, and the trap failing to miss the obvious under our noses. The slide guitar is a beacon scything through it all. The Universe then fully busts down the door; I swear I can hear this in the snarl of Elvis Costello, even if the lyrics are far too upbeat and pro-planet for EC. Just when the title suggested another full on ballad, too. 

Dialling down the mood, Chapman now shows she can after all do a slow song, without resorting to strings or saccharine, the spirit of Tom Patty inhabiting the casual slow chug of The Edge. And if she offered to take you there, as she promises, you’d go. Actually a song about her first husband’s death, of cancer, but remains a song of hope and looking forward as much as it is of celebrating him. Pocket Of My Past, with syncopated drums, occupies a sort of Motown feel, the girly bvs and brass contributing to that mood. Hey Girl (We Can Deal With It) next somehow manages a totally modern day vocal that could come from Beyoncé, Rihanna, one of those, yet chucks in some blistering moutharp that those ladies wouldn’t generally allow; it’s clever and, unsurprisingly, is one of the singles. Try and catch the prescient theme in the words, being almost a reference to Me Too, were it not written before.

Everywhere We Go is a flatback gospel tinted caper, with more of that harp, walloping along with an attractive abandon, with a walking string bass and ragtime guitar. Any song that references “The bastards won, we lost our way” has to have something going for it, before going on to say ‘lets just lay down on the grass and watch the sky above, so I can thank my lucky stars I still got you to love!” Yay! The penultimate track, it might just be my favourite. And yes, I get the ambiguity of “you”, Neilsen’s faith never kept shy from her writing. Did I say faith? Final track, Walk You To Heaven is clearly is on similar ground. Another song of farewell to those lost along the way, it sidesteps any risk of mawkishness with ease. A co-write with Kimmie Rhodes and Mindy Smith, it is simply and staggeringly sumptuous. Making Everywhere We Go suddenly my second best.

It may be that these songs are all fairly old, written and co-written, tucked away for rainy days, but the BNC presented here is entirely new and raring to go. Let’s hope it isn’t another ten years between releases. Should all of this whet your ears, regular visitor, she tours the UK next month, through November, dates via her website, below.

Here’s live TV version of Put A Woman In Charge:

Beth Nielsen Chapman online: website / facebook / twitter Instagram

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