Rebecca Lynn Howard, No Rules

Rebecca Lynn Howard
No Rules

Patty Loveless has proclaimed her as a thrilling voice in modern-day country.  Trisha Yearwood covered two of her gorgeously sad ballads on 2001’s Inside Out. And yet, Rebecca Lynn Howard failed to follow these two legendary singers and assert herself as an important new voice in the mainstream. Many expected her a breakthrough after her 2002 single, “Forgive,” a convincing ballad of grief and anger that chronicles her confrontation with a cheating spouse. But after a few false starts in the major label system, she slid into oblivion.

Finding Music Row to be a fickle companion, Howard sought the comfort of an indie startup. She signed with Saguaro Road Records, a subsidiary of Time-Life, and her new musical attitude is signified right in the album title. No Rules is a music geek’s dream, daring to drift across genre lines with no need for the square-peg songs that plague her contemporaries.  Howard combines country, bluegrass, gospel and blues into an infectious blend that’s stirring and spontaneous. She exerts her variety of influences on a sterling set of emotional intellect that scratches her creative itch.

Howard’s brazen effort is led by an earthshaking voice, a sharp-edged tool blessed with a sweetly soulful texture. Howard owes a considerable debt to the blues, infusing the cover tunes with the rhythms and the spirit of Motown. It’s evident from the opening track, a simmering take on the Temptations hit, “Shakey Ground.”  She breaks from the tension on “New Twist on an Old Groove,”  a symphony of saxophone and slide guitars, fully commanded by her gutsy growl. On “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man,” a faithful cover of the Aretha Franklin classic, she blows the doors off the demand for romantic equality. The original versions are still definitive, and Howard can sound overzealous on her remakes, but these riveting numbers show different shades in her capable hands.

In co-writing ten of the fourteen songs, Howard asks more probing questions than ever before. The most intriguing entry is “The Life of a Dollar,” the fiddle-fueled tale of a dollar’s travels and its impact on the lives it reaches. The piano-led “What Dying Feels Like” is a tender bluegrass ballad that finds a disconsolate woman enduring the high drama of a hard breakup. As hope becomes increasingly remote, Howard spills her guts with an understated delivery that never settles into melisma.

Later, she takes a different tack on matters of the heart, flashing her sassy side on “Just Let It Burn,” a funky, slow-churning number that’s smoldering right up until the last note. Ultimately, she preaches the value in a more enduring love. “As One as Two Can Be” is an evocative story of romantic revival, a gospel-tinged revelation that boldly pleas for a lasting partnership.

In three minutes of infectious joy, Howard summarizes her return to record shelves and the free-spirited feel of No Rules. “Sing ‘Cause I Love To,” co-written with Radney Foster, captures the inspiration of a natural-born performer; the uplifting number crystallizes the connection between singer and song. When she’d reached a commercial crisis point, Howard didn’t get dejected, holding onto that undying devotion. She became a mistress of all aspects of music, and No Rules is a skilled reflection of that transformation.

Be Sociable, Share!

13 Comments

Filed under Album Reviews

13 Responses to Rebecca Lynn Howard, No Rules

  1. Leeann WardNo Gravatar

    Incredible review!! I’ve wondered about this album and you’ve convinced me to go ahead and buy it.

  2. Steve from BostonNo Gravatar

    Great review Blake..

    Patty and Trisha’s confidence in RLH is very well placed indeed. I also love Rebecca’s “Little Drummer Boy” duet with Patty on Patty’s Bluegrass and White Snow album.

    “No Rules” is a great album, and artists like RLH should not have to struggle in the marketplace..the quality of their work merits far more airtime.

    Kudos to Saguaro Road Records for embracing not only Rebecca Lynn Howard, but also Patty Loveless and other first rate artists. SRR knows high quality when they hear it.

  3. So far Saguaro Road Records has done a good job at securing very talented artists, I’m hoping they become a big enough label to get some of their artists radio attention that would be great.

    Rebecca Lynn Howard is one of my favorites I’ve always wondered why MCA never released another single off of Forgive, they really dropped the ball with that one.

  4. J.R. JourneyNo Gravatar

    Awesome review as usual, Blake. But for all the praise you heaped on the album, only three and a half stars?

  5. I listened to this album back in the summer and ““Sing ‘Cause I Love To” was the standout track for me and I kind of got stuck on that. I never gave the rest of the album a second listen.

    Thanks for explaining the history of some of the cover songs.

    I shall go back and listen to the whole thing again with a more informed ear.

  6. Blake BoldtNo Gravatar

    @Steve: Howard would be a worthy addition to contemporary country music and the mainstream marketplace, I agree. But if her creative freedom allows her to make fine albums like this, she may be best served on the fringes of the industry. You’re right-Saguaro is setting up a nice artist lineup.

    @J.R. Journey: The praise for Howard is warranted, of course. I felt that she went in “shrieking diva” (there it is again!) mode a few times, especially on the remakes, which hurt her IMO. But overall, she sang in ways that were only in service to the song. No Rules is an interesting case. 3.5 stars is, more or less, a recommendation to listen. I myself have no strong reservations about the album, besides some excessive belting and 2-3 tracks that were mediocre.

    Ratings are a difficult exercise, as you can imagine, and my hesitations about the album, honestly, aren’t completely quantifiable. The highlights are here for all to see, and there are no clear black marks on No Rules. I’ll try to explain as best as I can.

    The only drawback to having such a diversity of musical styles is that the listener may not find the appeal in all of them. And there’s a wider disparity on No Rules than most albums released under the broad definition of country music. Is it an out-and-out weakness? No. But a certain cohesion is lost in the effort. Although I personally thought Howard handled the task ably, I can understand how the average listener would be a little thrown at the shifting in styles. That being said, I recommend No Rules and hope Howard follows her creative impulses going forward.

  7. CarolineNo Gravatar

    RLH sings one of the greatest break-up songs ever: “Hard to Be Together”. The harmony that accompanies the ache in her voice is enough to drag up any old heartache.

  8. Steve from BostonNo Gravatar

    Good point Blake about the upside of relative obscurity allowing for more creative freedom. Especially when the artist is signed with a label such as Sagauro, which really seems to value quality work above all.

  9. Steve from BostonNo Gravatar

    Jim O, “Sing” is the standout track from No Rules for me as well. Love it!

  10. J.R. JourneyNo Gravatar

    Thanks for clarifying Blake … I planned to get this album either way. Her sophomore CD, ‘Forgive’ was simply brilliant – the title track was only one of several gems including “Jesus And Bartenders”, “It Didn’t Look Like Alcohol” and “Life Had Other Plans”.

    Remarkable talent, that Rebecca Lynn Howard.

  11. Great review! Dang. Makes me want to go pick this cd up. She’s pretty awesome, and a heck of a writer. I’ve enjoyed her gospel music as much as anything, and I hate that this city can be so… messed up sometimes – I mean, win a Grammy and get dropped? yeah. But she rocks and that’s why she still has a career.

    (on the side, congrats on the new site – looks good – and I’ve updated the link I’ve had on my site to reflect the new spot)

    Paul

  12. Leeann WardNo Gravatar

    Hey Paul,

    Thanks for your support of Country Universe.

  13. RussNo Gravatar

    “What Dying Feels Like” has one of the most stunning vocal performances I’ve heard in a long awhile. Gives me chills.