Wednesday, October 27, 2010

I Have A Fearless Love But It's Hard To Recommend Melissa Etheridge's New Album.

The Good: A couple good, catchy tunes, Decent lyrics, Good vocals.
The Bad: EVERYTHING falls very much within what one might expect from Melissa Etheridge.
The Basics: With a very weak recommend, I find Fearless Love to be very familiar Melissa Etheridge that lacks a new hook.

I have the best wife in the world, of this I am absolutely convinced. She is not into female singer-songwriters or performers, but when we go out and she sees me eyeing something, she has a way of making sure I get it if it is something I am seriously interested in. And randomly, she'll pick me up things that I have a casual interest in. A few months ago, we were in a music store and I noticed that Melissa Etheridge had a new album out and two days later, my wife surprised me by presenting me with it. Truth be told, I have very few of Melissa Etheridge's works in my permanent collection. With Fearless Love, I'm not sure how much I actually want or need.

Right off the bat, let me say Fearless Love is not in any way a bad album. Fans of Melissa Etheridge will be pleased to have some new songs by her. The fundamental problem with the album is that the new songs hardly sound new. Anyone who has heard Melissa Etheridge songs on the radio will find the album to be predictable and familiar because with Fearless Love, Melissa Etheridge returns to rock and roll like the kind she used to make. Exactly like the kind she used to make. As a result, Fearless Love actually sounds a lot like a "lost collection" of singles more than an actual new, fresh album.

With twelve tracks, Fearless Love is very much the musical sound and vision of singer-songwriter Melissa Etheridge. Etheridge wrote all of the songs and she provides all of her lead vocals. Etheridge also plays lead guitars - acoustic and electric - on the various tracks and she is credited as a co-producer with John Shanks on the album. As a result, Fearless Love is very much the album Etheridge intended to make.

Unfortunately for those eager to hear something new from Etheridge, Fearless Love does not have anything substantively new to rock out to. Perhaps the best example of this came from my wife, who did a first listen with me. As "Only Love" continued playing, she turned to me and said, "I keep waiting for her to belt out 'Come To My Window.'" If she had more experience with Etheridge and her work, she would know that virtually every song was garnering a similar reaction within me (just with different song titles). There is a very familiar and very limited sound to much of Fearless Love.

This sound comes, in part, from the fact that Melissa Etheridge is returning to her musical roots as a rock and roll artist. In that sound, Etheridge is part of the "one woman and a guitar" school of rock and that is what the listener gets on this album. There are a few times the keyboards break out, but for the most part each and every song sounds like it is one woman with a guitar leading a bass and drum combo which is accompanying her. On much of the album, the percussion is muted and it is the bass which helps keep time. The guitar is dominant, though and Etheridge strums her way into melodies that rock, like the title track and "We Are The Ones." There are a few quieter, more soulful ballads, like "Company" and "To Be Loved" which sound unlike other songs on the album. But while they might not mimic songs on Fearless Love, they sound familiar enough to other songs on Etheridge's other albums.

If the instrumental accompaniment sounds derivative of other Etheridge works (or, as my wife claims of "Miss California," a Pearl Jam song), the vocals are truly disappointing for anyone who has eagerly followed the career of Melissa Etheridge. Etheridge has a smoky voice and a very limited range which is in the lower alto register for many of her songs. On Fearless Love, she stays comfortably in that range. She belts out a few lines and illustrates lung capacity with holding the final note to "Only Love," but for the most part, the lines Etheridge sings are very much like she has sung every one of her radio hits.

At least many of the lines are benefited by the fact that Melissa Etheridge presents her lyrics with clear, crisp vocals. Even when competing against her own guitar, even when straining to be emotive, Etheridge succeeds in making her lyrics clear and easily understood. Thank goodness for small miracles.

And it is an impressive enough thing as Etheridge has something to say. More than just personal, Fearless Love has a political streak and it is refreshing to hear a song which sounds almost like a new Folk anthem for change with "We Are The Ones." In fact, were it not for the ridiculous repetition of the title line, "We Are The Ones" would be a powerful anthem. Even so, it is hard to argue with the way Etheridge boldly declares "We're dreaming from the bottom of the well / We're curled up in the corner of our cell / Freedom's just a story that we tell / I say give me liberty or give me hell . . . We are the ones we are the ones we are the ones / The ones that we're waiting for" ("We Are The Ones"). Etheridge is an able anthem-maker and her writing on this album is as tight as ever and it is a pleasure to hear her once more making music out of a demand for change.

Even so, as one might expect from an album called Fearless Love, most of the songs are about human relations and the struggle to find love and to live free of relationships that might not be working. It is a mix of heartwrenching and hopeful the way Etheridge sings "I'm still wanting to be loved / I'm still hoping there's enough / The constant wanting to be loved . . ." ("To Be Loved"). Etheridge has a voice that sells such raw longing to the listener and the song works as a lonely rock ballad that leaves the listener eager to know what becomes of the song's protagonist.

That sense of longing is the subject of the best and most distinctive songs on the album. With lines like ". . . all I want is company / Someone to understand this misery / Send a reflection of myself to me / Cause everybody needs some company / These times I'm living in just make no sense / Sometimes my face gets pushed against the fence / I want to scream out in my self-defense / But I don't want to be alone" ("Company"), Etheridge completely captures the angst of desire and the pangs of loneliness felt by . . . well, pretty much anyone at one point or another in their lives. Etheridge uses fairly simple diction to make her points clear and the lyrics work poetically as well as thematically and musically.

But the new Melissa Etheridge poems are not enough to make this new album seem new. Too much about it is too familiar for even those who only like the radio hits of Melissa Etheridge. Ultimately, my "recommend" is a weak one - it came from a cointoss. Even so, I can justify it for two reasons: the musical world is better off with rebellious singers even if they crib their own material and when Melissa Etheridge sings something that sounds familiar, it's still sounds better than what most commercial artists are getting airplay for these days.

The best track is "To Be Loved," the weak track is the entirely unmemorable "Heaven On Earth."

For other works by strong female artists, please check out my reviews of:
The Green World - Dar Williams
Siren - Heather Nova
Live! The Bad Kitty Board Mix - Sophie B. Hawkins


For other music reviews, please visit my index page!

© 2010 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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