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REVIEW / Sad mouth: Jasper Rees on Mary Chapin Carpenter at the Hammersmith Apollo

The last song before the encores was 'The Hard Way', dedicated to 'those who stand firm in the face of intolerance'. Mary Chapin Carpenter, university graduate, Aids campaigner and scourge of sequins and hairspray, is that rare bloom, a doyenne of political correctness who's big in Nashville.

If anyone singing what nowadays comes under the umbrella of 'Country music' deserves to be nurtured and propagated, it is this intelligent articulator of the real problems borne by women. So why is it that, with her carrying a pound or 14 extra since her last triumphant visit, one is nagged by the thought that it's not the diminutive Carpenter up there at all, but Dawn French lampooning the sensitivites of the singer-songwriter?

With long lank hair and beaming grin, she looked like French, but alarmingly often sounded like her too. Blame the acoustics maybe, because the four albums betray no hint of this foible, but when Carpenter strives for volume on the lower notes a croaky sob fetches up from her gullet that resembles a parody of itself. To these ears it comes across as an exertion rather than an expression of feeling.

This only happens in the sad ones, but as there aren't many happy ones it happens quite a lot. The sad ones are mostly about loving and losing, the happy ones about lusting. She kicks off with 'I Feel Lucky', one of the latter, which is all about a woman going out one night to get herself a man. When male artists sing of such matters they are usually accompanied by very loud guitars, but there you go: Carpenter keeps you abreast of her agenda even when she's having a good time.

'Read My Lips', 'Down at the Twist and Shout' and Lucinda Williams' 'Passionate Kisses' bring more bursts of stomp, raunch and rollick, but the essence of what Carpenter's music has to say is distilled in 'He Thinks He'll Keep Her', which captures the emotions of a 35-year-old woman at the moment she realises her marriage is a dead duck. In this and 'You Win Again', a lament for a lost boyfriend, Carpenter is at her most powerful - singing ballads in a bullish tempo. 'That was a true story, unfortunately,' she said at one point. 'He was a real wanker.' Somehow, you can't see this singer covering 'Stand by Your Man'.

John Jennings, Carpenters's musical collaborator, has been standing by her ever since her days on the Washington DC folk circuit, and he was next to her here on lead guitar in the four-man band. Between them they must have swapped guitars about 40 times, but other rock gestures were kept to a minimum. Carpenter essayed the odd Townshend-style leap to beat out the song's ending, but you have to assume that this was done in the same spirit that Dawn French would do it.

When it came to the encore she proposed sticking around to avoid that cliche of constantly bouncing off the off- stage wall. A true progressive, but not true to her word: she did loads of encores anyway.