Thursday, December 16, 2010

Reba McEntire Presents A Surprisingly Poppy Country Album With Whoever's In New England.

The Good: Decent vocals, Some interesting lyrics, A few memorable songs
The Bad: SHORT, Musically derivative, Moments that are bland
The Basics: Exceptionally average, Whoever’s In New England has Reba McEntire presenting a remarkably pop-driven side of Country music.

Time is a very weird thing. It changes our perceptions and it can truly mess around with one’s head. I mean this both as a collective statement and from an individual perspective. So, for example, in the U.S., there is a strange glorification of the 1950s where many consider it a strange suburban utopian time of paradise, while forgetting somehow the Red Scare, McCarthyism and the rise of the military-industrial-congressional complex in the U.S. On the pop culture front, many of us consider Billy Ray Cyrus’s breakthrough on the pop charts with “Achy Breaky Heart” to be the real birth of the pop-Country crossover. But the more I listen to the works of Reba McEntire, the more it seems the lines between Country and Pop were blurred earlier and that Cyrus was just the first mainstream success with the sound.

Take, for example, Whoever’s In New England, an album I have now listened to an annoying two dozen times. Outside the use of the steel guitar – most notably on “To Make That Same Mistake Again” – and fiddles (which are not obtrusive or terribly noticeable on any tracks), there is nothing that separates the songs on this album from those on a similar pop album from the mid-1980s. The songs are generally a mix of upbeat pop numbers and slower, more vocally-driven ballads, but even after my first few listens, Reba McEntire here sounds a lot like Belinda Carlisle or similar musical artists. Even topically, there is little here that sounds distinctly Country. Instead, this is innocuous pop music and while it might have only been marketed toward Country music fans, it seems to be very average and likely to meet the needs of most pop music fans as well.

With only ten songs occupying just over thirty-one minutes, Whoever’s In New England is a somewhat anemic compact disc and it illustrates very little of the talents of Reba McEntire. McEntire did not write or co-write any of the songs on the album. While McEntire does provide all of the lead vocals on Whoever’s In New England, she does not play any musical instruments. To her credit, though, she is credited as a co-producer on the album, so this does seem to be her musical vision she is presenting. That said, it is a remarkably poppy vision of Country and this may be as accessible to those who like mid-1980s pop-rock as well as Country.

Whoever’s In New England is a light rock/pop-country album by Reba McEntire which generally has an upbeat sound given that it is guitar and piano driven. The upbeat sound varies little from the foot-stomping beats of “One Thin Dime” to the song “Little Rock,” which has a melody that is suspiciously like that of “Waterloo!” While the instrumentation accompanying the vocals does sound rich and well-produced, there are few songs that stand out musically. Instead, the album becomes a surprisingly bland collection of tracks with little differentiation between them. This is arguably because the sweeping instrumentals which accompany songs like the title track are so produced and familiar that they do not surprise the ear on the first pass, much less subsequent ones. It isn’t until the stark “Don’t Touch Me There” that the album actually upsets the expectations or the rhythm the listener has gotten into. That song has Reba McEntire performing with an acoustic guitar and minimal percussion accompanying her.

Of course, arguably, McEntire’s greatest musical instrument is her voice and she uses it well-enough on Whoever’s In New England. Actually, on the single “Whoever’s In New England” and the final song, “To Make That Same Mistake Again,” McEntire pushes herself out of her safe alto range for a higher register and it works beautifully. McEntire proves on this album that she has versatility, as well as spunk and vocal force. While most of the songs are fast and alto, like the album opener “Can’t Stop Now,” she performs her ballads well with great vocal control as well. Even so, outside a couple songs, the album is very much what one expects vocally from Reba McEntire. On this album, there is a little more twang in McEntire’s voice than on later albums, so those looking for a Country album will find some of that in the vocals.

Thematically, though, Whoever’s In New England is remarkably fractured. In fact, there is no narrative voice on the overall album and as a result, listeners might be left scratching their heads, wondering what exactly Reba McEntire wants or wants to say. So, while she fights for fidelity from a partner on the album’s title track, she also sings “I said I'd be a good wife / When I put on this ring / I drive a new Mercedes / I play tennis with the ladies / I buy all the finer things / But all that don't mean nothing / When you can't get a good night's loving / Oh little rock / Think I'm gonna have to slip you off / Take a chance tonight and untie the knot / There's more to life than what I've got” (“Little Rock”). Yes, Reba McEntire is singing about the joys of leaving marriage behind and having fun. Which is fine, it’s her choice (it doesn’t seem like something that fits the whole Country music/family values platform, but as I’ve never been into that, that’s fine with me).

But then, the next song has the completely opposite message. While one song stands up for standing up, the next is all about reconciliation with lines like “Now you say you want to be like me / Independent and free / But if you only knew / What a single girl goes through / The long working days and the lonely nights / The empty I love you's / Oh if you only knew what it's like to be alone / You'd put your anger down / Turn around and go back home” (“If You Only Knew”). The listener is likely to get thematic whiplash, though the album is dominated by songs about love or the loss of love.

Even within that narrow thematic window, though, McEntire – or rather those who were guiding her career at this point – seem to have a good bead on what will work for Reba. Arguably one of the best songs she ever presents, “Don’t Touch Me There” is presented on Whoever’s In New England and it is a winning song for anyone who likes pop or Country. After all, when Reba’s clear voice sings “Oh these arms / You can wrap around you gently / And your fingers / You can run them through my hair / But there's one place that's off bounds / From the last time love came 'round / When it comes to my heart / Don't touch me there” (“Don’t Touch Me There”) it is utterly heartbreaking. McEntire takes some very simple lines and makes them resonate with a deeply human sound and feel which is likely to wrench even the most jaded listener.

That said, the album is average at best and with its ridiculously short duration, it became impossible for me to recommend. Whoever’s In New England is not bad as much as it is unsurprising and musically unremarkable in virtually every way. While I find myself hoping there is a compilation with “Don’t Touch Me There,” even if I discover there is not, I’ll not count it as the biggest musical loss in my life.

The best track is the ballad “Don’t Touch Me There,” the low point is the schmaltzy and unmemorable “I’ve Seen Better Days.”

For other Reba McEntire works, please check out my reviews of:
Just A Little Love
The Best Of Reba McEntire
It's Your Call
Greatest Hits Volume III: I'm A Survivor
Room To Breathe
20th Century Masters: Christmas Collection - Best Of Reba


For other c.d. and singles reviews, please be sure to visit my index page!

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

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