Saturday, November 23, 2013

album review: 'the woman I am' by kellie pickler

If you've been listening to country radio over the past few months, you'd probably think that there aren't many solo female country stars left in the genre - with the exception of Taylor Swift (who is barely a country act these days), Miranda Lambert (who only is notching mainstream hits thanks to duets, unfortunately), and maybe Carrie Underwood (same deal as Taylor), who do you have? Well, you've got Cassadee Pope, but she's following in the Taylor Swift template and is more pop than country (an unfortunate cry from her roots, but given the patronage of Blake Shelton, not entirely surprising). But even with that, the songwriting is seldom up to par, and you don't tend to see a fair number of female country singer-songwriters gaining chart or critical acclaim.

But that doesn't mean they aren't there. Acts like Kacey Musgraves, who won Best New Artist of the Year at the CMAs (deservedly so) and Brandy Clark are still writing and singing great country songs that reflect a distinctly female presence in the genre. And really, it's a damn shame they aren't getting airplay in the same way, particularly when they write bitingly intelligent material and have a lot of flavour and texture behind their delivery. And thus, I was looking forward to the new album from Kellie Pickler, who some country music fans have wrongly branded just another American Idol 'faux-country' girl (even despite her embattled childhood and distinctive country roots). Then again, it's not hard to see why some came to that conclusion, given her first albums of output were not strong in the slightest.

But then she came back in a big way with 100 Proof last year - which earned a fair amount of critical acclaim for being an artistic breakthrough for Pickler and addressing some of the darkness in her past. And, completely unsurprisingly, the hits of that album didn't chart for anything - which was a real disappointment, because it was a very strong album and enough to pique my interest for her newest record, The Woman I Am. Between these two, Pickler had left her former label and signed with Black River Entertainment, an independent country label (yes, Pitchfork, indie country exists, why aren't you reviewing it?), which for me was an even better sign - maybe Pickler would have more control over her artistic direction, and we could get something special. So how did the record turn out?

Eh, it's pretty good. I'm not sure it's great or quite at the level of Kacey Musgraves or Brandy Clark, but it's a strong album all the same and while I don't think it's as strong as 100 Proof, it doesn't mean the album isn't worth your time, particularly if you like strong women in country music. 

And when I say strong, I definitely mean it, from both subject matter to instrumentation. In comparison with Kacey Musgraves' occasional flighty dalliances with folk and Brandy Clark's more downbeat adult-contemporary vibes, Kellie Pickler is pushing towards country rock on her louder tracks, but in a way that definitely compliments her delivery. The guitars are muscular and potent, but there's enough texture and raw twang in the mix to add a bit of a rougher feel to the tracks, and while there is some polish on the tracks, it feels a lot more organic than your stock mainstream country track. Sure, there are handclap beats and the occasional moment where the production isn't quite as cohesive as it could be, but overall I've got no complaints in this area.

Where things get a little more questionable are in Kellie Pickler's vocal delivery. Oh, don't get me wrong, she's a great singer and she has a beautiful voice that's aptly suited the slower ballads, but to me she has a lot of the traits that make a singer ideal for American Idol but not entirely great for a country singer - she's good at big cleaner, more theatrical moments a bit better than the rougher, dirtier, slightly more intimate country she wants to perform on this album. She's never bad, per se, but at points it feels like a bit more grit or raw passion in her delivery could have sold the material a little better. 

This takes us to the songwriting and lyrics, where we run into the album's biggest strengths and weaknesses. On a technical level, this album is really quite strong - the rhymes are solid, the melodies are pretty good, and I can't tell you how awesome it is to see country songs that reference drinking whiskey over beer. And on every song that Pickler has writing credits, there are personal touches I found really charming, especially on 'Selma Drye', a song about her great-grandmother that had a lot of detail and painted a pretty compelling picture. 

Honestly, I wish there were more moments of that texture and detail, which takes me to what I consider the biggest 'flaw' of this album and the one that does knock it down a peg in comparison with its predecessor: a broad lack of originality and unique personal touches, particularly on the songs not penned by Pickler. It's not exactly a new problem with traditional country: sometimes, you just run low on material in this vein if you don't really stretch yourself. As much I like songs like 'Bonnie & Clyde' for their rough edges and power, I can't help but find the comparison a little overused, especially if you're familiar with hellraiser songs featuring female 'protagonists'. 'Ring For Sale' falls into the same vein - it's a song about a fiancee selling off wedding apparel on retaliation to her cheating future husband, and while it's a fun little song, it doesn't really hit me as well as others. Maybe her delivery is a little too broad, maybe the songwriting wasn't clicking, maybe the song wasn't raw or impacting enough... 

Really, I'm not quite sure, but that's also my overall opinion of the album: it's quite good from a technical construction and it has a lot of texture and feeling to it that calls back to old school traditionalist country music... but it's not quite great and it feels a little lacking in punch (which is kind of ironic, given Pickler's harder instrumentation). To me, it feels a bit like Kellie Pickler has found her niche and her comfort zone, and while that's not a bad thing and it's a big step up from her original idol days and first two albums, it doesn't quite feel as strong or as emotionally evocative in the same way. Even with that, the album is still very good and worthy of a 7/10 and a recommendation. If you're looking for some solid country music with good instrumental flavour, check out The Woman I Am by Kellie Pickler - the current country music scene needs a lot more women like her.

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