The Gorgeous Ladies of Alt-Folk Wrestling
Carlene Carter is 52, Sheryl Crow 46, Shelby Lynne 39, Allison Moorer 35, Tift Merritt 32, Kathleen Edwards 28—quite a span, so don't call them a generation. Only Lynne and Moorer are actual siblings, not to mention survivors of parental murder-suicide whose new records consist primarily of cover versions. Only Moorer and Crow have dueted on the same Kid Rock song; only Lynne and Carter have ever had more than momentary success on the country singles chart, and it's been a while. Crow and Lynne have, by far, the thickest press packets this time out, but where Lynne (who has one Grammy) got a six-page Times Sunday-magazine feature, Crow (who has nine Grammys) had to settle for a Deborah Solomon Q&A. Crow's previous album, 2005's uncharacteristically introverted Wildflowers, was her career's floppingest flop at 948,000 copies, a figure any of the other five would be happy to get half of anytime; not surprisingly, she switches labels less often and still records for a major. She's also recovered from breast cancer. Edwards, who comes from Canada, and Merritt, who recorded in France, are both on their third albums. Carter used to be Nick Lowe's wife and is now married to soap-opera star Joseph Breen; Moorer's husband is Steve Earle, who has been known to appear on The Wire.
Still. They're all Adult Alternative by this point, right? Not crass enough for country radio (even in the critically sanctioned age of Miranda Lambert), but tastefully at home in the middlebrow Starbucks/Paste/NPR milieu. And in a dismal first quarter wherein Kimya and Alicia and Keyshia and Hannah and Sara (that'd be Bareilles—look it up) are suggesting that female artists (presumably selling to more than a few female fans) might be the biz's last best hope, these Triple-A all-stars are all back in the racks—with albums less exciting than the new one by 62-year-old Dolly Parton, no less. So forgive my lumping them together.
Shelby Lynne first—she just opened with her best sales week ever, and she's got the most Pazz & Jop potential. What you might have read about Just a Little Lovin' (Lost Highway): nine Dusty Springfield covers, one original, all Barry Manilow's idea. What you might not have read: tempos sluggish enough to keep Robitussin in business. That said, the two Bacharach-David songs benefit from Lynne's light touch, the two songs about morning sex benefit from Phil Ramone's almost dub-like open space and tick-tock percussion; and the two songs about neighbors residing in rundown 'hoods benefit from an ominous-enough swamp-soul groove. (And right, Shelby wisely avoids Dusty's biggest hit—you know, the one with the Pet Shop Boys!) But her attempts at jazzy phrasing came off less ridiculous back in her pre-critic-sanctioned western-swung Nashville days, and Lovin' is already swinging her pendulum back toward "overrated" like nothing since her 2000 culturati breakthrough.
Shelby's younger sis, Allison Moorer, likewise seems to be banking on coffee-shopping boomers overhearing her interpretations of the more familiar oldies on Mockingbird (New Line). Her marketing concept, though, casts a wider net: woman songwriters who aren't Lil Mama! The Julie Miller, Gillian Welch, and especially Patti Smith songs, wherein producer Buddy Miller erects a sturdy if stodgy statue of folk-blues drone, at least set up some semblance of mood. And crooning that bawdy old Nina Simone number about her bowl needing sugar was probably fun. But Moorer's mostly dishing out wallflower wallpaper and schoolmarm folk, while her rote revival of "Both Sides Now" is almost pointless enough to make Herbie Hancock seem courageous in comparison. Maybe she'll win a Grammy, too.
On paper, covering "Ring of Fire" seems just as dead-end—but how Moorer slows it down is surprisingly tolerable, and may well help people remember that June Carter Cash wrote it. June died in 2003, four months before Johnny; Stronger (Yep Roc), the latest from Carlene Carter (June's daughter and Johnny's stepdaughter), is being billed as a "recovery" record (hey, it worked for Rosanne Cash), but it sounds less heavy-handed than that suggests. It's also more pure pop than the lounge kitsch that Carter's ex-hubby Lowe has been selling lately, with some recognizable rockabilly clippity-clop, some fake Fleetwood Mac harmonies almost worthy of Little Big Town, and a "Jesus Is Just Alright" melody in "On to You" in case you forgot that producer John McFee used to be a Doobie Brother. But the only time Carlene really cranks up her singing is on "I'm So Cool," a proto–Gretchen Wilson tomboy shit-kicker that Carter first recorded on Musical Shapes in 1980.
Tift Merritt doesn't kick much shit, but Moorer might agree with her claim that "all girls go through a Joni Mitchell phase," and the well-regarded alumna of North Carolina's alt-country sphere definitely spends Another Country (Fantasy) exploring hers. The other country is France; Tift closes with a oui-oui slice of café chanson and murmurs through most of the rest of the album as if she's still groggy in her garret. Things pick up slightly in the middle: melody swiped from the Traveling Wilburys in track 7, some jaunty horns in track 8, and most alert of all: "My Heart Is Free," with thick guitar fuzz supporting an apparent tale of a soldier shooting his sergeant to escape the war. Then it's back to the Land of Nod.
Sheryl Crow's thinking about the war, too. Maybe too much. Her muddled protests on the wordy and unwieldy Detours (A&M) map out some absurd amalgamation of Prince, Dylan, Marley, and Madonna (the falafel-joint world-beat mantra "Peace Be Upon Us" is straight Ray of Light.) She means well, though: Even "God Bless This Mess" makes for a bearable refrigerator magnet until the towers come down. She also sounds reasonably bright-eyed and bushy-tailed through most of it—cod-reggae fixation or no, Bill Bottrell, who produced Crow's blockbuster Tuesday Night Music Club debut 15 years ago, gives her a decent bubblegummy bounce to chew on. But her most coherent politics show up in the breakup songs. And, sorry: If you're concerned about petroleum consumption, you might think twice before writing an Armageddon fantasy about how, after the riots of 2017, "gasoline will be free, yeah yeah yeah." (Also inadvisable: hiring jam-folk bore Ben Harper to stodge up the ending.)
Ottawa-born Kathleen Edwards's "Oil Man's War," off her proudly Canada-centric Asking for Flowers (Zoe/Rounder), is more down-to-earth: Basically, to dodge the draft, a horny boy and girl escape to the Great White North, where they'll have a baby and open a store downstairs. Edwards isn't averse to creative-writing notebook sing-song; there's something affected about the way she's always stretching out vowels. But studio aces—notably keyboard Heartbreaker and former Carlene Carter collaborator Benmont Tench—help a lot. And more than all these other sob sisters, Edwards just might convince you she's living in the material world. Three of her set's better songs talk about performing onstage, and the metaphor-packed "I Make the Dough, You Get the Glory"—which seems to concern a sisterly crush on a bandmate—is a Canuck tour de force, from its Gretzky-and-McSorley hockey references to its hopes for "heavy rotation on the CBC."
But the real State of the Provinces address is the one that takes its name from the national anthem: "Oh Canada," which pushes its Crazy Horse buildup skyward as it tackles a country's see-no-evil denial of racism and violence. By album's end, Edwards earns the six-minute smooth-jazz string-and-sax stretch-out "Goodnight, California"; you get the idea that she deserves the rest. And also that, like Joni, she might still have a little money riding on the Maple Leafs.
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