MICHAEL CARPENTER - Rolling Ball

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Michael Carpenter produced some of the best singer/songwriter rock & roll records around the turn of the millennium, but until 2003's Kings Rd. Works he was handling most of the instrumentation, recording, and production entirely himself. It seemed that having a full band in the studio with him would provide an extra dose of power and energize his normally humble efforts, but for some reason the end result was a record that sounded more constrained than his prior work and came off as a bit of a disappointment. He retrenched with the follow-up, 2004's brilliant Rolling Ball, a dizzyingly diverse record that borrows from a cornucopia of styles and bursts with enthusiasm. Rolling Ball doesn't represent a break from form so much as an increase in focus: this is still the same Michael Carpenterwho's been releasing rootsy and earnest pop/rock records since 1999. It is a return, at least to some extent, to the sound of Carpenter's first (and best) record, Baby, but not self-consciously so. Instead,Carpenter has shattered the "next Tom Petty" tag and realized that his many influences, which he has always tended to wear on his sleeve throughout his records, can merge to create a record that sounds like his own work, and that part of that process is to actually allow them to seep through fully. Essentially, Rolling Ball is where Carpenter decided to stop recognizing the boundaries of his influences and to instead fully integrate them, and the end result is excellence: the title track and "Emily Says" recall classic bubblegum, "The Ache" nods toward the twang of the Byrds' Sweetheart of the Rodeo without cribbing too liberally from the source material, ballads like "Good Enough" and "Everyday" resonate in a way that his slower material didn't before (especially on Kings Rd. Works, where they were the obvious Achilles' heel), and he also creates some of the most complex and dizzyingly diverse songs of his career, in particular the neo-psychedelic "The Day Before." Building from tense and foreboding verses, the song bursts into an anthemic, chunky classic rock-styled chorus before sinking again into the pulsating depths of the Nuggets-inspired verses. It's one of the best examples yet put to tape of just how much this artist is capable of achieving, and stands as the centerpiece of his brilliant return to form.