Caroline Spence: Mint Condition

Caroline Spence
Mint Condition
(Rounder)
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Life as a travelling indie singer-songwriter is no picnic, even for one as lauded as Caroline Spence. The Nashville-based artist who not only won American Songwriter’s 2013 lyric contest but has released two superb, well-received sets on her own since, tells you all about it on “Long Haul,” a striking track from her new third album.

In it she laments about her days driving between one-nighters with “But here I go I follow those highway stripes leading the way/ Down that fine line between making a living and digging your grave.” Sure doesn’t sound glamorous. But Spence understands the grind and accepts that this is the career she has chosen on a tune that reflects a similar life story for thousands of musicians like her. 

Perhaps this album, her first on major indie Rounder, will change things for the better. It certainly deserves to because the songs, singing, melodies, lyrics and especially sympathetic production by multi-instrumentalist Dan Knobler dovetail to create a beautifully crafted, introspective and never sappy collection that brings Spence’s multiple talents into sharp focus. Some titles such as “Who’s Gonna Make My Mistakes” about the frustrations of finding romance, “Sometimes a Woman is An Island” (“Sometimes a woman stands alone/ ‘Cause they’ll turn her joy into sorrow / And she knows her grief is her own”) and “Who Are You,” about finally finding the right match but not believing it (“There is no one for you/ Until there’s someone”) explain Spence’s frustrations without having to read much further. But the beauty of these compositions is how she intricately crafts and layers stories with the reserved grace of a voice that’s sweet, authentic and never phony.  

Spence’s approach falls somewhere between Tom Petty’s more laid-back work and Sheryl Crow’s melodicism. Tracks like the opening “What You Don’t Know” and the aforementioned “Long Haul” sprint along on reserved but decisive beats bolstered by strumming electric guitars. While most of the disc is dominated by ballads that fall between folk, country and pop, such as “Angels Or Los Angeles,” they cohere around Spence’s intimate, detailed lyrics and a compassionate, flowing style that never feels forced. Each selection is an intricately crafted gem, honed by Knobler’s pitch-perfect production and supporting musicians that never overwhelm either them or Spence’s exquisite delivery.

While getting Emmylou Harris to add harmonies for the closing title track was a coup, she really doesn’t add much to a song that’s already a gem about keeping a love burning successfully for a lifetime. It’s sure to be used as music for renewing wedding vows and it is hard to imagine anyone not getting a lump in their throat to “… some things they last and some things they won’t/ But nothing about you ever gets old.” 

The subjects of road-weary musicians along with frustrations/revelations involving love and relationships may not be new, but Caroline Spence’s innovative and mature angle on these shopworn concepts, along with subtly hooky tunes, makes them feel fresh and inspired. 

Third time the charm? Based on the shimmering Mint Condition, it deserves to be.