Tuesday, January 4, 2011

A Decent Country-Pop Romp Performed By Reba McEntire, Sweet Sixteen Lives Up.

The Good: Good vocals, Decent Country-rock sound, Some good lyrics.
The Bad: Short, Musically repetitive sound
The Basics: A short, but decent, collection of Country-rock songs, Reba McEntire’s Sweet Sixteen is worth listening to, if not adding to your collection!

As I made my way through the stack of c.d.s that my local library has got in for me of my January Artist Of The Month last year, Reba McEntire, I rediscovered my antipathy toward Country music. This has less to do with Reba McEntire and more to do with a general desire to hear something new when I listen to new c.d.s and a diminishing respect for performers. I love artists and I thought Reba McEntire, being as prolific as she is, would be one of those artists who created her own music as opposed to simply performing the works of others. I suppose when you’re not worried about the writing end of the music, you can put out an album a year or more. In the case of Reba McEntire, by the time she got to Sweet Sixteen, she was already blending classic country with pop and was moving very much into the pop-rock end of the spectrum. That said, it’s not the worst album I’ve heard from her and some of the uplifting messages of the songs actually makes the album worth recommending, even if it is a soft recommend.

That said, Sweet Sixteen is a very average album in virtually every way. While the vocals and lyrics might be better than average, the instrumental accompaniment is so unimpressive as to be boring to the ear and the short duration of the c.d. bring it back into average territory. Virtually every moment of superlative performance or message is mortgaged by presenting instrumental accompaniment which is stiflingly dull . . . at best. Fortunately, Reba McEntire has the voice and charisma in her presentation to save Sweet Sixteen!

With only ten songs occupying 33:26 on compact disc, Sweet Sixteen makes the argument that older albums ought to double-up to use resources better and save customers both shelf space and money. That said, this is very much a limited view of what Reba McEntire’s musical vision is. On this album, she co-wrote three of the songs – “It Always Rains On Saturday,” “Am I The Only One Who Cares,” and “You Must Really Love Me” – two of which are superlative songs on the album. McEntire provides all of the lead vocals on the album, as well as some of her own backing vocals. She does not, however, play any musical instruments on this album. She is credited as a co-producer of the album, so this is arguably her musical message and vision for most of the work.

Honestly, outside the short duration, the only real drawback to Sweet Sixteen is the instrumental accompaniment. This album does have a classic sense of Country instrumentation to it in that it includes such instruments as the steel guitar and fiddles. The album is almost homogeneously upbeat in its sound, so those looking for slow Country ballads will find this to be a bit more energetic than that. This creates an interesting experience for listeners as the sound of some of the songs is more energizing or creative than the lyrics. Songs like “Somebody Up There Likes Me” sounds like a mix of a television show theme song and a classic [artist name is not coming to me]’s pop-rock number. Even thematically darker songs like “Cathy’s Clown” have almost-danceable beats and decent use of guitars and drums.

That said, what the album has in incredible amounts are quality vocals. Reba McEntire is a great vocalist and on Sweet Sixteen the production is stripped back to emphasize her vocals exceptionally well. On songs like “You Must Really Love Me,” her alto voice is perfectly pitched, expressive and clear. Throughout the album, McEntire articulates so her message may be heard and her voice is beautiful on each and every song, even the songs that are somewhat unimpressive. In this way, McEntire exhibits exceptional talent and makes Sweet Sixteen worth listening to, even for those who are not fans of Country music.

On Sweet Sixteen, Reba McEntire departs from ballads about love and loss and manages to tackle some deeper issues. She makes a rare song – certainly from what I’ve heard of Country thus far – about teenage alienation with “Am I The Only One Who Cares.” On that song, she actually presents a song that would work equally well as a folk song with its sense of musical storytelling. When she sings “She climbed up on her windowsill / Sat and stared at the cars on the street / And listened to her own heart beat / And whispered to the moon / Am I the only one who cares what I do / Cause if I'm the only one then who can I turn to / Oh moon can you tell me that it's not just me and you / Or am I the only one who cares what I do” (“Am I The Only One Who Cares”) she creates a vivid picture with her voice and the listener, at least American listeners who have ever been at odds with their parents, may easily empathize with the lines.

Similarly, on this album McEntire’s love songs have more edge to them or they take different tacts than simply people singing about wanting love or walking away from it. When she delivers the lines “And you must really love me / How can it be true / There are things you'll take from me / I won't even take from you / And every time I fall apart / You always pull me through / You must really love me / As much as I love you” (“You Must Really Love Me”) she takes lines with very simple lyrics and rhymes and transforms them into surprisingly deep expressions of some of our most complex emotions as human beings. Reba McEntire co-wrote the song and she delivers it with an irony that listeners are likely to recognize and appreciate. Her vocals have a transformative quality and on “You Must Really Love Me” and “A New Love,” she manages to say something that sounds new and different even if the sentiment is as old as time itself.

This is not to say it always works. On “Walk On,” rhymes like “Walk toward the light till you find the sun / And you'll be better off in the long run” fall flat. But generally, this short album is a decent musical experience and those who like Country are likely to enjoy it and those who like pop will find it sounds a lot like what we remember the 80s to sound like, save that the vocals actually have decent themes and messages. It’s enough to recommend and enjoy, even if the instrumental accompaniment is a little bland.

The best track is “Am I The Only One Who Cares” and the low point is “Walk On.”

For other Reba McEntire works, please check out my reviews of:
Just A Little Love
The Best Of Reba McEntire
Whoever’s In New England
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 music reviews, please be sure to visit my index page!

© 2011, 2010 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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