Friday, April 29, 2011

Reba Duets Is Very Average Background Country-Pop Music

The Good: Good vocals, Generally decent song selection
The Bad: Overproduced instrumental accompaniment, Short
The Basics: A very average album, Duets has Reba McEntire beating her pop-rock sound into the ground with other vocalists assisting.

There is something exciting (at least for me) about going through a musical artist's repertoire and discovering what all the hype about an artist or performer is all about, especially when that performer is outside the type of music I traditionally listen to. Reba McEntire is a favorite of my partner and I'm almost sorry that my immersion in Reba McEntire's works has led her to want a few months away from even hearing the name Reba McEntire. On the plus side, as I near the bottom of the pile of c.d.s I got in for the month to review, I have become quite convinced that while Reba McEntire might be extraordinarily popular, most listeners will do fine just by picking up some of her compilations. I mention this at the outset of my review of Duets because when I put the disc in for the first listen, I expected it to be an amazing departure from McEntire's usual fare. Truth be told, it is not.

By this point in Reba McEntire's career, two and a third years ago now, McEntire had very effectively crossed over to pop music and Duets reflects that with some of her choice of duet partners, like Kelly Clarkson and Justin Timberlake. While McEntire is sure to keep the roster packed with Country music stars, like Ronnie Dunn, Rascal Flatts, Trisha Yearwood, Kenny Chesney, Vince Gill and Faith Hill, the song selection is not firmly Country. In fact, most of the instrumental accompaniment is a more generic form of pop-rock than it is Country. Songs like the duet with Faith Hill, "Sleeping With The Telephone" sound more like a duet between the likes of Barbra Streisand and Celine Dion than Patsy Cline and Rosanne Cash. The more I listened to the album, the more the songs blended together as a form of indistinct musical mash that is best analogized to light radio play one hears inoffensively piping through the supermarket. Despite the overly choreographed and obvious dramatic crescendos, Duets is largely quiet and unimpressive and the vocals are too often in competition with the overproduced instrumental accompaniment.

With only eleven songs occupying 44:19, Duets is a very collaborative work and I found it ironic that there are other artists or performers who seem to have at least as much creative influence (if not more) on the album than McEntire herself does. So, for example, several of the performers co-wrote the song they appear on the album on, but McEntire only co-wrote "Does The Wind Still Blow In Oklahoma?" On "The Only Promise That Remains," Justin Timberlake co-wrote the song, performs vocals with McEntire and is credited with producing the track. McEntire's lone co-writing credit is not all she does on Duets, though, as she provides the lead vocals on all eleven songs. And while she does not play any musical instruments, she is one of four producers on the album, so this does seem to be her musical vision which is represented.

Unfortunately, that musical vision is remarkably bland. Far from being a series of true duets, several of the songs are simply Reba McEntire performing with notable backing vocalists. In the case of "The Only Promise That Remains," it is actually surprising that McEntire managed to woo Timberlake to the project considering how little vocals force he is given in the final product. The songs - which are annoyingly not included on the back of the c.d., only who the guest performer is on each track - include very poppy duets with Kelly Clarkson in a rehashing of her song "Because Of You." "Because Of You," which had pretty decent crossover success, illustrates well the lack of imagination present on Duets. The song does not offer a reinterpretation of Clarkson's original song. Instead, it is McEntire covering it with Clarkson and the instrumental accompaniment sounds identical. In other words, it sounds like McEntire and Clarkson are doing karaoke!

Instrumentally, the album is predictable, bland and remarkably uninspired. Dominated almost entirely by guitars, Duets frequently had the vocalists competing with an overbearing string section that seems content to try to drown out the vocalists. Even the piano-driven "Everyday People" has Carole King and Reba trying to sing louder than whomever is banging out the accompaniment on the piano. Only the real mellow guitars on "Every Other Weekend" does not offer real potential to bury the vocals of the leads. Even on that song, though, the drums are so loud and obvious in an overproduced rock-ballad way that the instrumental accompaniment has moments when it is just plain annoying.

As for the vocals, because this is what the album is trading on, they are erratic at best, depending upon the guest vocalist with Reba McEntire. McEntire's vocals are clear and crisp on songs like "Does The Wind Still Blow In Oklahoma." In fact, McEntire and Dunn play off one another's vocals well with Dunn's raspy drawl contrasting nicely with McEntire's clear alto articulations. Sadly, though, McEntire's voice sounds produced and touched up on songs like "Because Of You" and "Sleeping With The Telephone." What's worse, is that Duets seems to bring out a competitive aspect of McEntire that I've not heard on any of her other albums. When she is the dominant vocalist, she performs in her predictable and standard alto vocals, which she also does while performing duets with Don Henley ("Break Each Others Hearts Again") and Vince Gill ("These Broken Hearts").

But on songs where McEntire is paired with a performer who can perform in the soprano range, the melodies degenerate into ridiculous screech-offs. This is notably the case on "When You Love Someone Like That" (with LeAnn Rimes) and "Sleeping With The Telephone" (with Faith Hill). McEntire insists on trying to go as high as her counterparts (oddly, something she never does when paired with Linda Davis on any of her other albums). And yet, as both of those songs above reach for their emotional climax, McEntire gives her best to keep up and the result is unfortunate and momentarily amelodic for the otherwise awesome performer.

Thematically, Duets is a fairly diverse album, though most of the songs do center around love, loss or loneliness. The closest to Country the album gets is with the duet with Ronnie Dunn. That storysong actually has the two singing to their father (in Reba's case) and mother (in Dunn's case) as musical protagonists who have met in Los Angeles while both are pining for the country. A pretty obvious pandering to the Country music audience with lines like "Out here it's all freeways, fast cars / And cold concrete / You won't believe all the crazy people / Valley girls and sunset freaks / I met a girl you're gonna like her mama / She has your hair / Red as the Tallequah sunset / Sings like an angel I swear / I can't say I don't get lonesome / But I'm alright / Cowboys kinda go with homesick / like blue moons and whippoorwill nights / But does the wind still blow in Oklahoma / Out here the Hollywood stars sure shine bright" ("Does The Wind Still Blow In Oklahoma") the song works because it sounds Country and the vocalists play the song out quite well.

Other songs vary greatly: "Because Of You" is lyrically a great song about a woman finding strength to leave an abusive situation (which, alas, the video does not capture) and "Everyday People" is an anthem celebrating community service. "Sleeping With The Telephone" is a longing track with a musical protagonist waiting on her soldier partner to call from a war zone. Even "Every Other Weekend" is a decent song about being divorced with children. But while these songs tell interesting musical stories, songs like "Faith In Love" are so lyrically generic as to be utterly forgettable. Even "These Broken Hearts," fails to energize the ear of the listener because it doesn't make a statement that is particularly compelling.

The saddest moment of the album comes at the climax and by "sad," I do not refer to the emotional resonance. No, at the peak of the album, Reba McEntire performs "Break Each Others Hearts Again" with Don Henley. Thematically, this is almost identical to Henley's duet with Stevie Nicks from the '80's, "Leather & Lace." Here, the seasoned listener gets to feeling like they are being jerked around auditorily or that McEntire had no idea what else to do with Henley.

Ultimately, this album is average-at-best and it is unremarkable pop-Country that most listeners will be able to pass by without feeling like they are missing out on anything. The best track is "Every Other Weekend," the low point is "These Broken Hearts."

For other Reba McEntire works, please check out my reviews of:
Reba McEntire
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
If You See Him
So Good Together
Greatest Hits Volume III: I'm A Survivor
Room To Breathe
20th Century Masters: The Millennium Collection - The Best Of Reba McEntire
20th Century Masters: Christmas Collection - Best Of Reba
Reba #1's


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

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

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