Monday, February 28, 2011

Reba McEntire's If You See Him Is A Tougher Sell Than It Ought To Be.

The Good: Good vocals, Energetic instrumental accompaniment, Generally decent song choices
The Bad: Ridiculously short, Songs sound alike.
The Basics: A very average album by Reba McEntire, If You See Him does not have much wrong with it, but also has little that sets it apart.

The advantage of "coming late to the party" in the case of discovering musical artists or performers later in their career than most people is that when one looks at the current body of the artist's work, they can see the ebb and flow of the styles and trends that the artist was exploring easier. As a result, one may look at albums as aberrations in the artist's career or as foreshadowing a direction they would later go in. In the case of Reba McEntire, If You See Him appears to be a pretty clear foreshadowing of Duets, which she would release almost a decade later.

I write this not simply because If You See Him has two duets on it, but rather because the musical style is strongly what one would come to hear on that later album. But more than that, Reba McEntire's albums do have a tendency to go in phases from Classic Country to pop with most of them helping to pioneer - and later capitalize on - the Country-pop craze of the Mid-1990s. If You See Him has an odder sense of balance to it, with songs that are very much Country-rock ("All This Time"), classic Country ("Face To Face," "If You See Him, If You See Her"), and the more common Country-pop ("One Honest Heart," "Lonely Alone"). The irony I am running into here, though, is that with this album, Reba effectively blends the already blurry lines between the various genres, creating an album packed with songs that sound remarkably similar to one another. To wit, having heard Greatest Hits Volume III: I'm A Survivor, long before now, I was somewhat surprised by how few songs from this album were on that; from the sounds of the songs, so many more sounded familiar and my presumption was that I had heard them before.

That said, If You See Him is a very typical Reba McEntire musical experience. With an even dozen songs taking up 45:03, If You See Him is very much a collaborative effort by Reba McEntire and her record company, MCA. McEntire did not write any of the songs on the album and she shares the lead vocals on two tracks with guest performers: Brooks & Dunn on "If You See Him, If You See Her" and Linda Davis on "Face To Face." She does not play any of the musical instruments, but she is a co-producer of the album and selected all of the songs she performed on the album.

Truth be told, I've never been much into Country music, so this whole month has been eye opening to me in many ways. What If You See Him isn't opening my mind to is the idea that Reba McEntire is comfortable with only her Country music audience. Songs like "One Honest Heart," which is electric guitar-driven and pounding with the percussion sounds more like a pop-rock ballad than anything coming out of Country and its folk/bluegrass roots. Instead, many of the songs on If You See Him sound like rock and roll tracks with Reba as a competent vocalist competing with the powerful instrumental accompaniment or very typical pop ballads.

The pop ballads that are mixed in tend to be keyboard-driven and have McEntire sounding more like Celine Dion than herself. Songs like "Invisible" are overproduced and feature predictable swells with the instrumental accompaniment designed to get the most out of the listener's emotional reaction. Somewhere between the two are the more Country-pop songs like "I Wouldn't Know," which has more mellow percussion and includes lighter guitarwork (and the presence of the steel guitar) to balance the vocals. Even so, "I Wouldn't Know" is instrumentally predictable and the song sounds like a pop song, even if it uses the steel guitar (which is not, traditionally, a pop instrument). As well, the song sounds largely like every other song on the album. If You See Him is actually characterized largely by a louder instrumental accompaniment on all of the songs, so McEntire sounds like she is competing with the instruments that are playing behind her.

That said, it's hard to keep the vocals of Reba McEntire down! McEntire is an exceptional vocalist who works in the alto register and on songs like "I'll Give You Something To Miss," she has an energetic quality that has not been duplicated by any other artist in contemporary times. At the same time, she has the ability to be emotive and downright soulful, as she is on "Forever Love" and she plays off Linda Davis with a great ability to present irony in her music on "Face To Face." Reba McEntire fans will, no doubt, be pleased by the vocals on If You See Him, but the truth is that McEntire stays very comfortable in her safe range with this album and having heard nineteen other Reba McEntire albums, it is easy for me to say that she is not presenting anything truly new or unexpected with her vocals on this album.

Even so, the song choices on If You See Him are decent. Like most of McEntire's albums, the songs on If You See Him are largely about love and loss and this album has a number of songs about walking away from bad relationships. As one who is not a fan of Country music as a genre, this album made me come to appreciate the two big solutions Country women give for problems with their men. The first comes up in "Invisible," which is certainly enough to disabuse listeners of the notion that Country women are cold fish. They might value monogamy strongly, but as Reba sings, the solution to being overlooked is often seduction, ". . . tonight in lace and candlelight / She'll prove to him she's not / Invisible" ("Invisible"). It's hard not to like that solution to waning chemistry!

But what caught me was the honesty and solution to "Face To Face." The duet is a musical storysong between a wife and a mistress about their expectations and what happened when they meet. You know the song is not pop (they don't confront the cheating man and make him choose), you know it's not hip-hop (the women don't get into a fistfight or shoot one another), you know it's not rap (there are only two women who have been cheated on and the man's response isn't "I've got eight more I'm stringing along, so what's your problem?!"), and you know it's not Goth-emo (the cheated on women don't kill themselves), because the women size each other up and both decide to leave the cheating guy. It's actually strange and civil to hear the lines "There's no blame here we both end up the same here / A little wiser than we were / There was a time this would have killed me . . . And now that all the spells are broken / The truth's been spoken / My heart has the strength to tell him goodbye" ("Face To Face").

And despite some terribly predictable stronger/longer, tryin'/flyin', lot/not rhymes on "Up And Flying," the album still manages to have some decent poetics at parts. "Lonely Alone" is actually appropriately difficult with its concept of being alone in a relationship and leaving because it's better be alone without someone than be lonely with them. "Lonely Alone" is actually the track that pushed this very firmly into the "recommend" category for me. The bulk of the album's tracks are easy to find on other compilations, but not that perceptive song.

Anyone who likes pop-rock and/or pop-Country will find something to like on If You See Him. It might sound rather indistinct as pop or Country, but it is still a stronger pop album than I've heard lately. And hey, if no one new is going to come along and make decent pop music, why not go back and catch an album you might have missed because it was miscategorized at the time?

The best song is "Face To Face," the low point is the unmemorable "Up And Flying."

For other Reba McEntire works, please check out my reviews of:
Feel The Fire
Heart To Heart
Just A Little Love
Have I Got A Deal For You
The Best Of Reba McEntire
Whoever's In New England
What Am I Gonna Do About You
Sweet Sixteen
For My Broken Heart
It's Your Call
Greatest Hits Volume Two
Read My Mind
Starting Over
What If It's You
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 for a comprehensive listing of all of my current music reviews!

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

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