Tag Archives: Shania Twain

Album Review: Carrie Underwood, Blown Away

Carrie Underwood
Blown Away

At this point, it’s easy to forget that Carrie Underwood first kicked off her country music career as an American Idol graduate.  Besides being one of country music’s most technically gifted female vocalists, she’s gone on to become one of its strongest commercial forces, with a seven-year-long string of Top-2 hit singles, not to mention albums that consistently sell like hotcakes.  But a noteworthy gap has often been seen between the impressiveness of Underwood’s talent and success and the quality of her material. In terms of lyrics and production, at least, Underwood’s new album Blown Away finds her taking steps forward that are small, but steps forward nonetheless.

As hinted at by the gloomy cover image, Underwood’s fourth album finds her taking on some notably darker, more serious song material than on her previous albums.  After leading off with the wildly catchy Shania Twain-esque debut single “Good Girl,” the album quickly takes a turn for deadly serious territory.  The title track tells of a young woman taking revenge on her abusive alcoholic father by hiding in the cellar when a tornado approaches their home, letting the house collapse on top of her father while he lies passed out on the floor.  Though it doesn’t quite reach the spine-tingling heights of Martina McBride’s similarly themed “Independence Day,” “Blown Away” is one of the most interesting and complex songs here, and though it could do without the gaudy vocal reverb effects, the arrangement lends the track an appropriately eerie feel.  As “Two Black Cadillacs” begins with a funeral scene, the listener is quickly pulled into the tale of two black veil-wearing women who share a dark secret.  The omission of some narrative details toward the end lessens the ultimate listener payoff, but “Two Black Cadillacs” likewise remains one of the album’s more striking and memorable cuts.  Indeed, Underwood is to be applauded for putting for the attempt to tackle more challenging lyrical material, as opposed to the predictable fare that tended to weigh down her previous releases.

Similarly, though the album often settles for the same pop-country sound that Underwood and producer Mark Bright have long favored, here there are several tweaks to the usual formula.  The prominent mandolin line on “Leave Love Alone” sounds different that anything Underwood has previously recorded, while the signature Brad Paisley guitar-shredding on “Cupid’s Got a Shotgun” turns an already fun song into a regular jam session.  The surprisingly sparse, primarily acoustic number “Do You Think About Me” benefits from added restraint both in production and vocal, which is effective in delivering the wistful lyric.  These production choices don’t necessarily reinvent the wheel, while some – such as the reggae flavorings of “One Way Ticket,” for example – may prove polarizing, but they are unexpected coming from Underwood.  Such willingness on the parts of Underwood and Bright to go for the occasional risk is refreshing.

Weighing in at a generous fourteen tracks, the album could have benefited from leaving off a few of its more forgettable cuts, and perhaps being condensed into a more consistently solid ten- or twelve-track collection instead.  Blown Away suffers most when it veers off into a shallow, feel-good thematic direction, which is particularly evident on the trite self-esteem booster “Nobody Ever Told You,” as well as the beachy Chesney-esque reggae of  “One Way Ticket” – the latter an obvious candidate for a summertime single release, with a music video that practically creates itself.  That’s not to say that such lyrical concepts are necessarily taboo, but these particular efforts lack the personality and strong hooks that are needed to make such efforts memorable.  The fact that power ballad “See You Again” was originally intended for The Chronicles of Narnia soundtrack is telling, as the vague, platitudinous lyric savors strongly of disposable soundtrack fare.  Cliché-laden album closer “Who Are You,” a surprising misfire of a composition from Shania Twain’s ex-husband/ ex-producer/ ex-songwriting-collaborator Robert John “Mutt” Lange,” is just a total bore.

That said, Underwood can be remarkably successful when she puts forth the earnest attempt to connect with her listeners on a relatable emotional level.  Though the title of “Thank God for Hometowns” raises a red flag, we are treated to a fully three-dimensional portrayal of the very best aspects of small-town living (“Small Town U.S.A.” it isn’t, thankfully), including the small-town camaraderie of close neighbors and friends, while the conversational tone lends both a personal feel and a welcome sense of structure to the lyric.  The two finest tracks are “Good In Goodbye” and “Wine After Whiskey,” both ranking among Underwood’s strongest co-writes to date.  The former displays a level of maturity and clear-eyed insight as Underwood reflects on a difficult breakup that has turned out to be a blessing in disguise.  The latter utilizes an effective metaphor of drinking wine after whiskey to illustrate how the narrator’s current lover pales in comparison to the one she lost.  Better still, Underwood displays notable growth as a lyrical interpreter on both of these songs, wisely sparing us the power notes, while adding to the emotional impact through her nuance and subtlety.

Though it’s not quite a wholly consistent project, and it does have its share of weak spots, Blown Away is an album that is brilliant at best, and bland at worst.  But what makes Blown Away a fascinating and ultimately satisfying collection is that it displays an artist willing to continually grow and challenge herself by experimenting with different sounds, musical styles, and lyrical themes.  In today’s music industry, it’s all too easy for an established superstar to settle for predictable, wheels-spinning material that furthers his or her primary marketing persona without moving forward artistically in any meaningful way.  Granted, Underwood’s attempts at branching out still result in occasional missteps, several of which are documented on this album.  Still, to see such a demonstration of a “What’s next?” artistic muse, particularly from a woman who can already out-sing most of her peers from the corner of her mouth, is an absolute joy to hear.  Here’s hoping her future efforts achieve greater consistency to go along with her ambition.

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Retro Single Review: Shania Twain, "Rock This Country!"

2000 | #30

The eleventh single from Shania Twain's Come On Over was one of the least successful in the U.S., barely scraping the bottom of the Top 30.  This was due in part to a lack of promotion for the single, though it did go Top 5 in Twain's native Canada.  In some ways, “Rock This Country!” comes across as a standard Twain up-tempo – peppy, with a fun Mutt Lange-style pop-country production, but the lyrics are surprisingly flavorless.

Time and time again, the Twain-Lange writing team had displayed a strong knack for crafting lyrics that were infectious and hook-heavy, yet doing so without entirely sacrificing substance.  Behind all the singalong choruses, crossover-friendly productions, and flashy music videos, each Twain single had a simple message and a universal feeling at its core, be it an “Any Man of Mine” or an “(If You're Not In It for Love) I'm Outta Here!,” a “That Don't Impress Me Much” or a “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!”

“Rock This Country!” is essentially about nothing.  Though its title was enough for it to be used as a theme song for two different presedential campaigns, the lyrics hardly warrant discussion – just a song about some “buzz” going around, and a bridge consisting of a list of random U.S. states.  It's as if the song can't get around its own title, and remainder of the lyric sheet is a blank slate.

That's not to say that Twain and Lange don't try their darndest hard to sell it.  Lange surrounds his wife's voice with an arrangement that goes from rock guitars one moment to a searing fiddle solo the next.  Similarly, Twain's performance exudes the usual energy, right down to the yell of “Let's go!” before the instrumental breakdown.

But for all its positive additions, there's no getting around the fact that “Rock This Country!” lacks the defining characteristic of a great Twain ditty:  Her best songs stick.  This doesn't.

Written by Shania Twain and Robert Johnn “Mutt” Lange

Grade:  B-

Next:  I'm Holdin' On to Love (To Save My Life)

Previous:  Come On Over

Listen:  Rock This Country!

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Retro Single Review: Shania Twain, "Come On Over"

1999 | #6

“Get a life, get a grip, get away somewhere, take a trip
Take a break, take control, take advice from someone you know

“Come on over, come on in
Pull up a seat, and take a load off your feet
Come on over, come on in
You can unwind, and take a load off your mind.”

Hmm.  So the lyrics don't seem to have a whole lot to say.  The song is primarily simple series of feel-good platitudes.

And yet, the package as a whole is hard to resist.  The lyrics are not outstanding on their own merits, but Twain sells them with enthusiasm, and Mutt Lange's production complements them effectively.  The Cajun-flavored accordion-laced arrangement and catchy piano hook lend the record a fresh and infectious sound that still holds up well today.

“Come On Over” is not one Twain's biggest or best hits from the album of the same title, but Twain and Lange's musical treatment makes it an entertaining and inviting musical experience, if not a particularly substantive one.

Written by Shania Twain and Robert John “Mutt” Lange

Grade:  B

Previous:  You've Got a Way

Next:  Rock This Country!

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Retro Single Review: Shania Twain, “You’ve Got a Way”

1999 | #13

“You’ve Got a Way” is a beautiful showcase of the unique set of gifts Shania Twain brought to the table as a vocalist.

Her detractors often maligned her vocal abilities, dismissing her as a subpar talent, as she did lack the range and power possessed by several of her contemporaries (such as Faith Hill, Martina McBride, and Trisha Yearwood).  Many failed to appreciate the fact that Twain had a strong talent for exuding sincerity in her performances, whichs adds more to a song’s impact than even the highest power notes.

Though having just conquered the world with a succession of hook-heavy pop crossover hits, Twain abruptly changed the rules with “You’ve Got a Way,” instead unplugging with a soft acoustic ballad.  Twain does all of the heavy lifting with her vocal delivery, and does so beautifully – with restraint, and a bit of an emotional quiver.  It’s a perfect fit for a lyric that is a simple, straightforward expression of love and appreciation.

I would recommend steering clear of the gaudy pop remix used in the film Notting Hill, as it interrupts the flow of emotion with unnecessary echo effects, an intrusive beat, and other distractions.  The original country version, however, ranks among Twain’s best work.

Written by Shania Twain and Robert John “Mutt” Lange

Grade:  A (country version); B- (remix)

Previous:  Man! I Feel Like a Woman!

Next:  Come On Over

Original country version:

Notting Hill mix:

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Retro Single Review: Shania Twain, “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!”

1999 | #4

Of all the crossover mega-hits from Shania Twain’s wildly successful Come On Over album, “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!” is arguably the most iconic.

The single was an across-the-board international multi-format smash that ensured Come On Over continued selling like hotcakes, and even helped Twain grab the coveted Entertainer of the Year trophy from both the CMA and the ACM.

An insanely catchy, danceable girl power anthem, “Man!” reels the listener in quickly and easily.  The distinct, easily recorgnizable synth hook ensures that the song will stay stuck in your head for days after only a few listens.  It’s the kind of song that you just fall in love with, and then get tired of, only to go right back to loving it in a short while.  The hilarious, eye-popping music video – a gender-flipped parody of Robert Palmer’s classic clip “Addicted to Love,” is every bit as memorable.

But perhaps the biggest reason why the song has held up so well over time is that, of all Shania’s memorably up-tempo romps, “Man! I Feel Like a Woman” is one that captures her infectious energy and priceless personality most effectively, right from the opening call of “Let’s go, girls!”  Only “Any Man of Mine” rivals it in that department.

There’s just no other song that defines her like this one does.  “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!” is Shania Twain.

Written by Shania Twain and Robert John “Mutt” Lange

Grade:  A

Previous:  That Don’t Impress Me Much

Next:  You’ve Got a Way

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Retro Single Review: Shania Twain, “That Don’t Impress Me Much”

1998 | Peak: #8

One of the defining aspects of Shania Twain’s music has been her propensity for inspiring women to feel as though they have a right to express themselves.

Her empowering attitude hasn’t been expressed through songs of revenge or violence, but rather, through straightforward, no-nonsense lyrics that simply cut to the point with humor and clever turns of phrase.

With some playfulness, “That Don’t Impress Me Much” follows in this no-nonsense tradition by making it clear that it takes more than a high IQ, good looks or a fancy car to truly impress this woman. Along with the straight talk, we also hear traces of amusement throughout the song, which is one of the signature endearing qualities of Twain’s music.

While the Brad Pitt reference threatens to date this somewhat quirky single, it is catchy, sing-able and one of Twain’s more country-sounding efforts.

Written by Robert John “Mutt” Lange and Shania Twain

Pop Version:

1999 |  Peak: #7 (U.S.); #3 (U.K.); #2 (Australia)

After scoring with two remixed hit ballads, Twain’s first uptempo pop crossover hit required a lot more work under the hood.  While the vocal track remained the same, the backing music is completely reinvented.

The synthesizer-drenched dance mix was dated even in 1999, though it gave the song a campy feel that matched the over-the-top video well.  It also made the song very appealing for international audiences.   It’s not as good as the original mix, but it does lay the groundwork for the ambitious Up! project, which uses synths a lot more effectively. – KJC

Grade: B

Next: Man! I Feel Like a Woman!

Previous: Honey, I’m Home

Country Mix:

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mqFLXayD6e8&ob=av2e

Pop Mix:

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RaRH6kmZpvM

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Retro Single Review: Shania Twain, “Honey, I’m Home”

1998 | Peak: #1

Come On Over was such a forward-sounding album that by the time the eleventh track played, it sounded like a dated throwback.

“Honey, I’m Home” is a paint-by-numbers rewrite of the groundbreaking “Any Man of Mine”, deliberately written to placate the fans who discovered her through that song.

That isn’t speculation, mind you.  Twain stated it outright when the album was released.

It isn’t a bad record, by any means.   I’d make the case that it’s actually funnier and a bit catchier than “Any Man of Mine.”  But like any sequel, no amount of improvement can recreate the impact of the original.

Written by Robert John “Mutt” Lange and Shania Twain

Grade: B

Next: That Don’t Impress Me Much

Previous: When

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KSAkimQ9akE

 

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Single Review: Lionel Richie featuring Shania Twain, “Endless Love”

Lionel Richie’s new country duets project, set for a March 27 release, sounds like the kind of thing that could either go very right (Jennifer Nettles, “Hello”) or very wrong (Rascal Flatts “Dancing On the Ceiling,” anyone?).  We get a taste of the new project with this re-working of Richie’s classic pop duet with Diana Ross, “Endless Love,” sung this time as a duet with Shania Twain.

First, the bad news:  It’s too long.  The first three minutes sound lovely, but the song reaches an overdramatic climax that goes on longer than it should.  Also, the pop-flavored backbeat sounds a bit gaudy – You get over it after a few listens, but the single would be better without it.  Still, the biggest problem is swelling production that attempts to lend drama to the performance, but instead beats the listener over the head with needless distraction.  The production problems are mostly confined to the final minute of the song, but they still lessen the song’s impact instead of adding to it.

Now the good news:  Though filling the shoes of Diana Ross is certainly no easy task, Twain acquits herself more than adequately.  Richie for his part still sounds great, but ultimately the star is Twain.  Twain’s performance is colored with a deep sense of longing, recalling the finest love ballads of her own hitmaking heyday, such as “Forever and For Always,” with the two voices melding together beautifully on the harmonies.

The song had so much going in its favor.  It’s extremely irritating that it’s bogged down by production that gets so stupidly loud and over-the-top.  It would have been better if the production had stayed completely out of the way, and given the two vocalists more room to sell the song with their fanstastic performances.  Overall, this is still an enjoyable duet, but considering they spend the latter part of the song just shouting to be heard, it does fall a degree short of reaching its full potential.

Written by Lionel Richie

Grade:  B-

Listen:  Endless Love

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Retro Single Review: Shania Twain, “When”

1998 | Peak:  #14 (Canada); #18 (U.K.)

The closest thing in Twain’s catalog to a lost hit, “When” was released as the follow up to “You’re Still the One” in the United Kingdom.  Twain even shot a video for the song, which consists mostly of her playing in traffic while dressed like an angel.

“When” has a different tone than most of Come On Over.  As the only song that deals with heartbreak, it’s thematically different from the rest of the set.   The lyrics are just tongue-in-cheek enough to keep her away from self-pity territory, and the melody of the chorus pushes her to one of her best vocal performances.

Because it came before the very big pop hits in the U.K. and after all of them in Canada, “When” has the added bonus of being a Come On Over hit that didn’t suffer from overexposure, making it sound fresher than its counterparts today.

Written by Robert John “Mutt” Lange and Shania Twain

Grade: B+

Next: Honey, I’m Home

Previous: From This Moment On (with Bryan White)

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gH7VoJJh84k&ob=av2e

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Retro Single Review: Shania Twain, “From This Moment On” (with Bryan White)

1998 | Peak: #6

Written by Robert John “Mutt” Lange and Shania Twain

Bryan White was Shania Twain’s first choice for duet partner, and the A-list pairing kept “From This Moment On” on the charts long before it was officially released as a single.

Interestingly, it’s a better showcase for White in its duet form, who turns in some signature licks and makes Twain seem a bit bland in comparison.  However, it also gives the song a bit of a mid-eighties Peter Cetera vibe, which hasn’t held up well over time.

Grade:  B

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=elF-CCZIGrs

Pop Version:

1998 |  Peak:  #4 (U.S.); #9 (U.K.); #2 (Australia)

Twain revamped the single for release in the pop market, replacing White’s lines with her own voice and turning it into a potent solo number.  The addition of a Spanish-flavored guitar that borrowed heavily from “Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman”  gave the ballad added oomph, transforming it into a wedding staple across the world.

Grade: A-

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a-Lp2uC_1lg&ob=av2e

Next: When

Previous: You’re Still the One

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