It's tough enough for a second-generation artist to emerge from the enormous shadow of a parent's celebrity. It's exponentially rougher when the parent in question is beloved to the point of beatification. Liza Minnelli and Natalie Cole, two genuinely gifted performers in their own right, have spent their entire lives engaged, both personally and professionally, in losing battles with such sanctified specters. It's inevitable that Jen Chapin will face similar challenges. Two lines into the publicity material for her latest album, Open Wide (Purple Chair Music), we're reminded that she's the daughter of folk-rock icon Harry Chapin.
Like her late father, Chapin is both a first-rate storyteller and a dedicated humanitarian, devoting tremendous time and energy to World Hunger Year's Artists Against Hunger and Poverty program. The similarities seem, however, to end there. The 10 musical tales that fill Open Wide, all composed by Chapin herself, are less narrative, less cluttered and less baldly emotional than Harry's famous explorations of failed relationships ("Taxi") and familial dysfunction ("Cat's in the Cradle"). Her sweet, pure sound suggests none of her father's trademark growl, instead hinting at a keen appreciation of Joni Mitchell's distingue bohemianism and Rickie Lee Jones' cool self-assurance. Working in a remarkably spare musical environment, with only Stephan Crump's subtly powerful acoustic bass for support, Chapin crafts song-stories that are deeply introspective yet cautiously detached. "Passive People" is, for instance, a superb observational piece about social indifference and self-centered protectionism, while "Gold" mines the same "stop and smell the roses" philosophy as "Cat's in the Cradle," though with less fervor and decidedly more optimism. Apart from "NYC," a sharply personal homage to her adopted hometown, the closest she comes to an actual love song is the starkly codependent "I'll Take You With Me" or the bruised romantic resilience of "Slow Tide." Still, despite a seemingly purposeful sang-froid, Open Wide is enormously potent and handily demonstrates that Chapin needs no family ties to succeed.