Saturday, December 4, 2010

Reba May Need Room To Breathe, But She Seems All Right By Me!

The Good: Good vocals, Some decent lyrics
The Bad: Dreadfully short, Little stands out as remarkable or distinctive.
The Basics: A very average Country-pop album, Room To Breathe succeeds only because it is more thematically diverse than most pop albums.

Back in January, my local library managed to get me in a pretty decent stack of Reba McEntire albums, so my January 2010 Artist Of The Month exploration had a proper start with works from earlier in her career, working up to her new stuff. As it is, though, I’ve already begun my exploration of Reba (Greatest Hits Volume III: I’m A Survivor was reviewed here and the compilation from her Christmas albums was reviewed here!) and since then, I’ve been listening to Room To Breathe on pretty high rotation. This entire album was new to me and I am slowly beginning to see what the hype about Reba McEntire is.

On Room to Breathe, Reba McEntire presents a studio album that is equally pop as it is Country. Outside thanking god and having a “Love Revival,” there is actually little on Room To Breathe that sounds distinctly Country. Instead, this is a very average musical album for a light rock artist who seems to be coasting more on her reputation than illustrating her own talents. So, while she is referenced as a singer-songwriter, that is not evident on Room To Breathe. Instead, this album is very much an album that illustrates McEntire’s abilities as a performer as opposed to her talents as an artist. Even so, the album is more average than in any way unpleasant, which makes Reba McEntire an alternative for fans of Celine Dion or Barbra Streisand more than a distinctly Country performer. Outside “Sky Full Of Angels,” which is more Country-Gospel, the album could be pretty much anyone’s pop album.

With only a dozen songs occupying 44:31, Room to Breathe is a rather anemic music collection with limited creative control from singer Reba McEntire. McEntire was not involved in the writing of any of the songs, nor does she play any instruments on the album. Instead, she is credited with co-producing the album and she does provide all of the lead vocals on Room To Breathe. However, given what a celebrity she is considered within the Country Music genre, this seems like pretty minimal work for her. And on Room To Breathe, the results feel more average than anything else.

Room To Breathe is almost entirely made up of slow ballads, like “If I Had Any Sense Left At All,” “Once You’ve Learned To Be Lonely” and the title track. There is a sleepy, contemplative quality to most of the songs as a result and the album slowly develops as a sad, but easy to listen to collection of guitar-driven songs about love and loss. While there are a few exceptions, most notably the uptempo “Love Revival” and “I’m Gonna Take That Mountain,” this is largely a mellow album which is only moderately fixated on anything that sounds like it is from the country.

As a newbie to the music of Reba McEntire, I was surprised by how the venerable diva does not sound like the stereotypical Country music artist. So, for example, it is only on “Once You’ve Learned To Be Lonely” that McEntire actually presents any of her vocals with even a hint of Country twang to her voice. Most of the songs have her singing with clear, alto vocals which are melodic and sound . . . like pretty much any other pop-rock vocalist or even Gospel vocalist. Having heard McEntire in interviews, the lack of accent to her singing is somewhat surprising and one might think she would use her natural speech patterns in her music for “street cred.” That said, she does have a lovely voice, which is distinctive and somewhat lower than many other pop artists.

As for the content, on Room To Breathe, Reba McEntire is singing mostly about relationships and the stresses on them. This is an album largely about change and as such, she sings a lot about making good choices and exploring emotions. Here she differentiates herself from a pop-rock artist as most of her songs are more about family and considering consequences as opposed to just love or the loss of love. So, for example, when she sings “I was thinking just today / About how we used to play / Barbie dolls and make-up / Tea parties dress up / I remember how we'd fight / We made up and laughed all night / Wish we were kids again / My sister my friend” (“My Sister”) and it is hard to imagine it as more of a pop-dance song or even being covered by a more straightforward pop-rock artist or performer.

Similarly, the lines like “I know you're not to blame and I swear there's no one new / This has to do with me and not a thing to do with you / So don't try to understand you don't have a thing to prove to me / If you really love me just give me what I need / Room to breathe / A little time to think / To make sure I don't lose me / I need room to breathe” (“Room To Breathe”) are a lot smarter than most traditional pop lyrics. Instead of trying to simply exemplify the niche, even as Reba McEntire seems to want to fit into the pop-Country niche, Reba does a decent job of picking material which raises the bar on pop music instead of singing about the same, obvious topics that have been sung about since song began.

Even so, not all of the songs are winners. Singing about aging and losing a love simply to the ravages of time has worked better for other artists. When Reba sings the lines “Only God and a couple of nurses helped the old man shoulder the load / Love is a hard, hard road . . . He cursed his body old and weak / Tears of failure burned his cheek” (“Moving Oleta”) it is hard to get around the very simplistic rhyme scheme. Still, McEntire makes it sound good and it is hard for the listener’s heart not to go out to the musical protagonist with empathy.

That is, ultimately, the saving grace of Room To Breathe. The album has enough thematic depth to it to make listeners want to listen to the songs, even if the vocals and instrumental accompaniment are hardly extraordinary.

The best song is “Room To Breathe,” the low point is “Sky Full Of Angels.”

For other Artist Of The Month artists, please check out my reviews of:
In The Midnight Hour And Other Hits - Wilson Pickett
Actually (2-disc version) - Pet Shop Boys
Opiate (EP) - Tool


For other music reviews, please check out my index page by clicking here!

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

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