Fans of Reba McEntire who have been following her for the past two decades or so know that two things are true. One, she’s an effortlessly outstanding vocalist, who stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the legends of any genre. Two, she’s been all about diversifying her portfolio since the mid-nineties, which means on those increasingly rare occasions that we get new music from her, we never know whether it will be an album worthy of her talents, or just a vehicle for her latest marketing tie-in.
I guess it isn’t too surprising that Reba Duets feels more like a product than an album, right down to the fact that the back of the CD doesn’t bother to list the song titles. Tracks are identified as “Reba & LeAnn Rimes”, “Reba & Ronnie Dunn”, and so on. What is surprising is that McEntire has collected some of the strongest material that her voice has blessed in the past decade. and some excellent choices in duet partners helps make up for the album’s lack of cohesiveness, which is pretty much inevitable in a duet album anyway.
The best moments on Reba Duets are the ones where her collaborators meet Reba on her own turf. My personal favorite is “She Can’t Save Him”, a beautiful duet with Trisha Yearwood on a song that was a minor hit for Lisa Brokop back in the nineties. Yearwood’s one of the few female country singers in Reba’s league, and is quite a few levels above Reba in consistent song selection. It’s a collaboration worthy of both of their talents.
LeAnn Rimes plays the young woman who has been left and turns to the older, wiser Reba for advice on “When You Love a Man Like That”, another highlight of the project. Kenny Chesney has rarely sounded better than on “Every Other Weekend”, a powerful dialogue between two divorced parents. “Sleeping With the Telephone” is a potential classic, as she sings with Faith Hill about the fear-filled nights of wives who have husbands in the armed services.
The album only falters when Reba crosses over a bit too much, in the sense that the musical style of her collaborator dominates the proceedings. Her hit pairing with Kelly Clarkson on “Because of You” finds her singing beautifully, but not bringing anything new to the table. She’s got a great song in “Everyday People”, but sounds out of place in a sonic landscape that clearly favors Carole King.
For the most part, though, Reba brings out the best in her partners, with Justin Timberlake proving quite the country harmonizer on “The Only Promise That Remains”, and Rascal Flatts’ Gary LeVox sounding almost pleasant to the ears on “Faith in Love.”
In the end, it’s just a duets album, albeit a pretty good one. Here’s hoping that the big success that she’s found with this album will inspire her to put music first again. It’s been eleven years since Reba put out a studio album worthy of her talents (What if It’s You) and she’s long overdue for an artistic renaissance.
Buy: Reba Duets