Monday, August 11th, 2008
What Am I Waiting For
There isn't a lot of mainstream country music made these days that seems to speak for, and to, actual adults. Heidi Newfield's first solo album attempts to fill that void, and she has crafted an album that could only have been made by a woman who has a lot of living behind her, but still quite a bit to go.
So while love goes wrong throughout the course of What Am I Waiting For, there are no innocent illusions shattered, and when it occasionally goes right, there's little more than cautious optimism. It's interesting to compare Newfield's “All I Wanna Do” to the Sugarland smash of the same name, as both songs express the same sentiment: blocking out the rest of the world and getting lost in the arms of their mortal man. But there's a sadness to the slow ballad that Newfield is crooning, suggesting the troubles that she needs to block out are of a more harrowing nature.
Of course, that's the love gone right song, but most of the album is about processing the aftermath of poor choices that have been made, and charting a course for the future that leaves them behind. The winning title track doubles as a th
eme for the album, with Newfield “five years in to a two-year plan” and knowing that there's nothing left for her where she is, but still not quite able to make the move. Another strong track, “Wreck You”, has her taking account of the fact that no matter what she does, she only seems to damage the man that she loves.
There's a desperation to “Johnny and June”, which has her longing for a love affair like the one that's been portrayed on the movie screen in Walk the Line, but it's really just her longing for a fantasy, a romanticized version of real life that only exists on celluloid. A similar intensity surfaces in “When Tears Fall Down”, a powerful song that is probably the best-written track on the album, but is overwhelmed by the layers of production. Thematic guitar chords and gospel choruses are difficult to be heard over when it's just one of them in the mix, let alone two.
The too-busy production distracts from the many strengths of the album, and while Newfield is an effective vocalist, she doesn't sound in complete control of her surroundings. While she has a pretty good set of material to work with, songs like “Can't Let Go” and “Nothin' But a Memory” never live up to their early potential, falling short in both melody and turns of phrase.
The album closes on a high note though, with “Knocked Up”, which more than lives up to its title. It is Newfield's most self-assured moment on the album, as she deflects the finger-pointers in her midst and celebrates her life as an unwed mother. It may be an unconventional choice for the next single, but I imagine there are quite a few women (and men) out there who would embrace it as their own.
Sunday, June 1st, 2008
100 Greatest Women
Mary Chapin Carpenter
The list of intelligent female singer-songwriters that have made it big in country music is fairly short. Brown-educated and world-traveled by the time she performed publicly, Mary Chapin Carpenter brought a sophistication to country music that was eagerly embraced by the industry and fans alike.
Carpenter began singing the folks songs that she loved when still in high school. Reportedly, classmates threatened to cut her guitar strings if she sang “Leavin’ On a Jet Plane” one more time. The divorce of her parents contributed to her introversion, and she was a reluctant public performer. After attending Brown, earning a degree in American Civilization, she attempted to pursue her musical ambitions.
Fate intervened when she met John Jennings, who would become her primary collaborator. At the time they met, she still considered music a hobby and was determined to “get a real job.” He pushed her to start performing original material, and she demonstrated her sense of humor early on by dubbing her own publishing company “Get a Real Job.” Her demo caught the attention of Columbia Records, who released it as is in 1987, under the title Hometown Girl. It became a popular record on college radio, and the label felt she could reach a larger audience if she pursued a country career.
Sunday, May 25th, 2008
100 Greatest Women
When Time dubbed Lucinda Williams “America’s Greatest Songwriter” in 2001, it wasn’t exactly a news bulletin to those who had followed her career for the previous two decades. She became known as a songwriter first, despite a stunning recorded catalog of her self-written work. But the fledgling Americana format soon became her home, and she returned the favor by becoming its first big star.
She cut her teeth on the folk music of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. A native of Louisiana, she spent the late sixties and early seventies playing the local clubs in New Orleans, before moving to Austin, TX in 1974. There was a burgeoning country-rock scene in that city, and she fit in perfectly. She created a demo tape that caught the attention of Folkways Records, who signed her to a deal. In 1978, she released her first album, Ramblin’, which featured her take on various country, folk and blues standards.
It wasn’t until 1980 that the world was introduced to Lucinda Williams the songwriter on a formal basis. Her second album, Happy Woman Blues, was her first to feature self-written material. It was a polite collection that didn’t push any musical boundaries, but it established her as a singer-songwriter. In what would become a maddening trend for her followers, it would take another eight years before she’d release another album, as a development deal with CBS Records ended without any commercial releases, slowing down her momentum as a recording artist.