MARY CHAPIN CARPENTER

"Between Here and Gone"

Columbia

JIM LAUDERDALE

"Headed for the Hills"

Dualtone

After listening to her latest CD, with its pensive moods, poetic imagery and boomer pop slant, don't be surprised if you find yourself wondering how in the world Mary Chapin Carpenter ever became a chart-topping, country music star. Never before has she sounded so removed from the hit-producing pressures of Nashville.

This won't come as good news to those who prefer to hear the singer who brightened the airwaves with "Down at the Twist and Shout" and "I Feel Lucky." Nothing on "Between Here and Gone" sounds so spirited and lighthearted. Instead, with the help of co-producer Matt Rollings, Carpenter sustains an introspective tone throughout the album, crafting thoughtful songs about unresolved emotions ("What Would You Say to Me"), spiritual refuge ("My Heaven") and hard-won love ("Elysium"). The Paul Simon-like portrait "Grand Central Station," beautifully drawn and hauntingly arranged, ranks among her finest ballads. "The Shelter of Storms," a piano ballad that plumbs a complex relationship, unfolds in similar fashion, quietly and gracefully. Even "Beautiful Racket," which briefly jacks up the tempo and twang, has a contemplative slant: "How do some of us learn what matters, while others never get to hear?" Not all the songs invite repeat hearings -- the coffeehouse-caliber musing "Girls Like Me" flags fast. But in the end, "Between Here and Gone" doesn't resemble a collection of randomly chosen tunes so much as an intimate, carefully crafted song cycle.

Singer-songwriter Jim Lauderdale's new CD certainly doesn't lack comic relief. Teaming up with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, Lauderdale occasionally taps into a lighter shade of country music on "Headed for the Hills." "Looking Elsewhere," for instance, sounds like a honky tonk lament penned by Buck Owens: "Elsewhere, that's where I was looking when I should have been looking right over there." But Lauderdale and Hunter don't play everything for laughs. Featuring harmonies by Emmylou Harris, Allison Moorer and Gillian Welch, plus stellar backing by guitarist Bryan Sutton and mandolinist Tim O'Brien, "Headed for the Hills" often radiates a rootsy and soulful charm.

-- Mike Joyce

Appearing Saturday at Wolf Trap. * To hear a free Sound Bite from Mary Chapin Carpenter, call Post-Haste at 301-313-2200 and press 8103; to hear Jim Lauderdale, press 8124. (Prince William residents, call 703-690-4110.)

Mary Chapin Carpenter takes a thoughtful path on her latest.