Monday, September 7, 2015

album review: 'heartbreaker of the year' by whitney rose

So when I did my Special Comment highlighting some gems on the Canadian Hot 100, I got a few comments saying that, 'Well, you were cherry-picking - there is obviously quality here but you easily could have highlighted bad Canadian music and chose not to'. And I have a confession: as much as I'm a proud supporter of Canadian music and even Canadian country, we got our duds out here. We even have our version of bro-country out here, mostly pushed by Dallas Smith, formerly the frontman of post-grunge group Default and now has been working with Joey Moi on trying - and mostly failing - to be a cross between Florida Georgia Line and Jake Owen.

But we're not going to be talking about bad mainstream Canadian country, but instead diving back into the indie scene, so let's talk about Whitney Rose. Originally from Prince Edward Island on the East Coast, she dropped her self-titled debut album in 2012 - and it might have just been rough timing, because another Canadian vintage-leaning country singer-songwriter also dropped a pretty potent album in 2012, and that was Lindi Ortega's excellent Cigarettes & Truckstops, easily her best work thus far. And it's not hard to make that comparison: both artists brought a certain sultriness, taste for traditional country blended with vintage pop flavours, and gorgeous atmosphere to the table, and Whitney Rose's album definitely was of high calibre. But while I'd definitely argue her writing was a huge plus, her instrumental tones and styles were a little too polished, at least for me: very elegant and potent, but occasionally lacking an edge.

That looked like it might have changed on her sophomore release, Heartbreaker Of The Year, so I gave it a listen: what did I find?

Well here's one of the tricky ones, because for the most part, this record is damn good, a killer slice of old-fashioned country music from a rising star that's an easy improvement across the board from her debut and has a lot of subtleties in the writing and performance that easily stand out to me. But unfortunately it's also a record that I know exactly how it could have been one of my favourites of this year and it's a little glaring that flaw holds it back. Heartbreaker of the Year could have been one of my favourite country records this year, but as it is, it's a damn solid release that's just shy of real greatness. 

So for a change, let's start with the songwriting and themes - and like most country albums, you'd have to stretch to say there's a consistent theme. About half of this record focuses on relationships and those little things that draw people together, whether it be on the excellent Ronettes cover 'Be My Baby' with The Mavericks frontman Raul Malo flipping the song into a duet or the 'Little Piece of You', that fragment of experience or wisdom that's a much steadier foundation for attraction. And what I love about Rose's songwriting is that there is some more grounded, mature realism along the edges - not quite at the level of crushing depression that you'd get from Karen Jonas, although Whitney Rose's cover of Hank Williams' 'Tear In My Beer' gets close. I really liked how the wistful vintage yearning for a guy in her dreams gets slapped down by reality on 'Only Just A Dream' or how a new relationship can buff away old bruises on 'Ain't It Wise', and how moving on can have that cathartic release. Of course, it's rarely all that easy - from the party blowup that is 'The Last Party' to the downward spiral of 'My First Rodeo' to the incredibly well-written passive aggression of the title track where Rose plays the femme fatale effortlessly. That said, I liked the metaphorical conceit behind 'The Devil Borrowed My Boots' as Rose describes said Devil tearing up the town and it's a clear she just wants to avoid saying it's her, with the Devil symbolizing her vices, but the writing felt a little clumsy and awkward, probably could have flowed a little better.

And bizarrely, I could probably say the same for the instrumentation on that song too, filled with its awkward acoustic warble, even though the organs provided some great texture. Hell, if you want to look at an example where this album shines gorgeously, it's the instrumentation. Much like Lindi Ortega - and to a lesser extent, Kacey Musgraves - she's clearly looking back to the older, more vintage textures of traditional country, but Rose actually brings a little more danger and edge to this album in the choice of the tones, which are darker and a little meatier, especially in the guitars and deeper percussion. The pianos are softened, to be sure, but with the prominent basslines, the great grooves, the steel guitar accents, the choice to keep things a little more uptempo, and some great solos on tracks like 'My First Rodeo', 'Ain't It Wise', and 'Only Just A Dream', mostly courtesy of the burnished resonator guitars, it's an album that can feel old-fashioned without sounding like a throwback. And sure, you have songs that circle back to vintage pop like 'Only Just A Dream' and 'Be My Baby' and 'Ain't It Wise', especially with the more opulent strings and organ, but when it's so well-balanced and put together, I have a hard time not loving it. And for me, the easy standout is the stripped back minimalism of the title track, which sounds imported straight from a western noir and it balances the glam with the grit so well, it's impossible not to like.

Of course, a large chunk of the credit has to be given to Whitney Rose herself. She's not as theatrical as a Lindi Ortega or Tami Neilson or Kacey Musgraves, instead sticking with a more understated sultriness which is incredibly appealing and can demonstrate some real subtleties in her delivery. I get the feeling she's got the range to project or get a little louder, but she doesn't need to, which only draws your attention that much deeper. But here's the biggest problem with this album: the subtleties are great, when you can hear them. Coming back to Raul Malo of The Mavericks, he handled the majority of the production on this album - savvy choice, given the similarities in their styles - but he has a far different vocal tone. Even though he's got one of the best voices in country, he's louder, a little more strident and theatrical, and the production very much suits his voice. But that often means that Whitney Rose can be mixed low across this album, her words often being buried within the burnished warmth of the instrumentation instead of being more audible. And that if anything detracts from her greatest assets in her vocals and her writing - often times I have a hard time making it out, and that's a big problem.

And the frustrating thing is that it really does run through the majority of this album - not a glaring issue that cripples it, but a niggling frustrating that I would love this so much more if Whitney Rose had been mixed a tad higher. As it is, it holds back Heartbreaker Of The Year from being a truly great record - but that does not mean it's not worth a lot of your time. Resoundingly solid writing, instrumentation, great performances, and a few definite standout tracks, it's an extremely strong 7/10 and a high recommendation. As I said, I support Canadian country, and this, it's a slice of some of the best.

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