September 16, 2008
This review must be prefaced with a somewhat humorous anecdote: A week or so ago, the writers of Country Universe convened online to discuss upcoming content for the website, and to divvy up upcoming albums and singles for review. At that time, I selected for review Why Wait, Kristy Lee Cook’s debut album for Arista Nashville. Soon after making that selection, however, I jokingly added: “But I’m going to pass it on to someone else if it contains any Lee Greenwood songs.” Lo and behold, what do you know, the final song on Why Wait is Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA.” [Enter guffaw here.]
For those of you who don’t watch American Idol, or who simply missed this past season, Cook was a top 12 finalist. Almost immediately, the judges designated her as the season’s “Country Girl” (although there was never anything particularly country about her). Given Carrie Underwood’s success in the genre, and the potential fan base, this was a blessing in disguise for Cook, who otherwise lacked a distinctive voice and charismatic personality.
Cook nearly squandered the opportunity. She landed in the bottom two the first couple of weeks, and was poised to go home during week three. But then—in a truly inspired, brilliant and blatantly opportunistic move—she covered Lee Greenwood’s über-patriotic anthem “God Bless the USA.” The country fans rallied. Not only was she not in the bottom two that week, she managed to stick around for another three weeks, and land herself a new record deal (an early one went nowhere) in the process. There hadn’t been such a blatant ploy for the affection of country fans since Underwood released “Jesus, Take the Wheel” as her first single. But like “Jesus, Take the Wheel,” it worked.
After listening to Why Wait in its entirety, it’s clear that Cook (and her producer Brett James who co-wrote “Jesus Take the Wheel”) took more than a few cues from Underwood’s successful career. Her first single, “15 Minutes of Shame,” touches on the same revenge theme as Underwood’s third massive single “Before He Cheats.” She also has her own version of Underwood’s second single “Don’t Forget to Remember Me.” “Homesick” is about a young girl leaving home for the first time with big dreams and a heavy heart. It even has the same “leaving home” and “first apartment” scenes. Indeed, nearly every song on the album sounds like either a re-run of or a toss-off from an Underwood, Martina McBride or Faith Hill album.
Therein lies Cook’s biggest problem. She does not have the vocal prowess of any of these women. Instead of playing to whatever strengths she may have and trying to distinguish herself from Nashville’s vocal divas (as Kellie Pickler did rather successfully on her first post-Idol album), Cook attempts to compete with them, and fails miserably. She brings no depth or richness to her vocals, leaving her interpretations hopelessly flat; and her attempts to hit notes well beyond her comfort zone make listening somewhat uncomfortable. Cook’s shortcomings are most notable on “Not Tonight” (a song co-written by Underwood herself). The song, about a love that’s all wrong, but can’t be left behind just yet, has all the hallmarks of a track that mainstream country radio would eat up. However, the song feels like too much of an effort to be enjoyable.
Cook also suffers from “Jessica Simpson syndrome” (unsurprising given that she shares a producer with Simpson). A few of her songs start out promisingly with a simple vocal and guitar—and then, wham! The wailing kicks in and the song is ruined. This offense reaches its peak on the title track “Why Wait.” The song, which is about not tip-toeing around a potential once-in-a-lifetime love, starts out well with a slight bluegrass feel, and then turns into a wailing romp a lá Underwood’s “Flat on the Floor.”
Cook’s vocals are most believable on “Like My Mother Does,” a sweet, yet unoriginal twist on Martina McBride’s “In My Daughter’s Eyes,” in which Cook assumes the daughter’s point of view. “I Think Too Much” is also enjoyable. Although lightweight, the hook is catchy and the song, about a girl who over-thinks every aspect of her relationship, is entertaining and more original than anything else on the album.
The remaining songs are bland country-pop (leaning pop) outings that re-tread familiar themes and do nothing to help Cook establish a distinctive voice. “Plant the Seed” is another in the long line of country’s pseudo-inspirational anthems; “Baby Believe,” about getting back a lost love, somehow went missing from Faith Hill’s “Cry” album; and “Hoping to Find” finds Cook dreaming of the fairytale love story I’m assuming Taylor Swift is waiting for with “stars shooting in the night,” “fireworks in your head” and a “shower of meteorites.”
In the end, this album leaves the listener with lingering questions: Who is Kristy Lee Cook? Is she more than a marketing ploy riding the coattails of Idol? With Why Wait she has only emphasized who she is not. She’s not Carrie Underwood. She’s not Martina McBride. She’s not Faith Hill. In order to compete in Nashville, which is flush with blonde singers at the moment, Cook is going to need to show us more. With this effort, she doesn’t do nearly enough to create, much less solidify, her niche.