Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Awkwardness Of "Country" Up!: Shania Twain Tries To Straddle Two Worlds With Mediocre Results.

The Good: Good lyrics, Good vocals, Duration
The Bad: Not definitively "country."
The Basics: A disappointment to fans of Country, labeling aside there is just enough to recommend the "Country" version of Shania Twain's Up!

The nice thing about reviewing Shania Twain as my October Artist Of The Month is that she threw me a real bone with her album(s) Up!, which I have been listening to in high rotation since Sunday. Up! is released in three forms: a Country album (the green disc), a pop album (the red disc) and together as a two-disc set. The thing is, the content of the green and red discs is identical, save some instrumental changes for the backing of Twain. As a result, Twain tries to play nice with a two-disc version, but also allows those who despise pop and love Country (or vice versa) to get only the album in the form they desire it separately. So, this review is for the green disc Up! mixed to be "country."

It is worth noting that I actually enjoy Up! and I like the ambition of the idea of selling oneself to both Country fans and pop fans the way Twain is doing with this album. The problem is that the Country version of Up! is not particularly "country." The lyrics are rightly identical to those of the pop version of Up!, but the vocals are seemingly identical as well, which just makes the instrumentals the source of the "Country mix" label that defines this version of Up! And while the pedal steel might be largely only used in Country music, it seems like it ought to take more than that to make it Country.

With nineteen songs occupying a full 72:31, Up! is an ambitious use of the compact disc medium and a decent example of the talents of singer-songwriter Shania Twain and producer-songwriter Robert John Lange. Twain and Lange have been working together for years and Lange's producing is largely what creates the Country Mix of Up! (as well as the pop mix of the same). Together, Twain and Lange wrote all nineteen songs on Up! Twain performs all of the primary vocals and Lange does all of the producing. Neither one plays any instruments on this album, but it does seem to be their creative vision.

Here, though, Twain and Lange seem to be in a bit of a creative rut. Up! (the Country mixes) is essentially a pop album with the presence of occasional fiddles and the pedal steel. Thematically, the album is pure pop without any regard - outside, possibly, the reference to "She praises the Lord" in "She's Not Just A Pretty Face" - to anything remotely Country. In fact, the only song that sounds definitively Country is "Thank You Baby! (For Making Someday Come So Soon)" and even that track has soaring crescendos with guitars more familiar to pop-rock music than Country. The presence of fiddles and pedal steel fit with Twain's voice to sell it as Country somewhat better than other songs on the album as well.

Largely, though, Up! is an upbeat album that is danceable and has memorable tunes to it. It is dominated by the pedal steel, drums and guitars. The bass is heavy on songs like "Waiter! Bring Me Water!" but otherwise, the album is lighter, enthusiastic and filled with recognizable (once one has heard them) melodies and catchy jingles. Songs like "Nah!" and "Ka-Ching!" which could thematically be worked into a more Country sound fall flat on the Country album. "What A Way To Wanna Be!" sounds just like any number of other pop songs, despite the muted instrumentals - the drums and guitars make it sound far more "pop" than Country.

The problem here is also one of the album's strengths. The vocals are lovely and Shania Twain has an amazing voice. The thing is, whatever lilts or accents one might assume or have heard from Shania Twain The Country Artist are missing from the Country version of Up! So, for example, "I Ain't Goin' Down" lacks any sense of drawl or Western flavor (and yes, I am aware that Twain is a Canadian) that might define her as a Country artist. Instead, the album relies entirely on the instrumentals to carry the connotation that the song is Country.

Here Twain - or, more reasonably, Lange - fails horribly. The album does not have any sense of Country from the lyrics and vocal presentations. As a result, the instrumentals alone cannot carry the concept to its successful realization. Instead, Twain simply broadens the perceptions of what pop music is in on this album and listeners are left with a sense of disappointment. There is no resemblance here between classic Country and only a mild resemblance to what many would consider Country now. Instead, this is exactly the type of pop-masquerading-as-Country that has sprung up since Billy Ray Cyrus charted with "Achy Breaky Heart." Fans looking to Twain to return to Country with this album will be largely disappointed.

Still, it is hard not to like this album, as it has decent (if not particularly Country) vocals and lyrics. Twain is an energetic singer who gets around some fast-paced and fun lyrics on several of the songs. "In My Car (I'll Be The Driver)" illustrates Twain's sense of independence, her ability to sing lines fast and a great range. She sings moderately high before going purely soprano for some of the inarticulate accents. Still, the song is largely fun and that she gets out "It's all right if you sleep with / your socks on--oh, babe! It's okay! / And you can hurt my head with / your favorite rock song / I don't mind--yeah, that's fine . . . But in my car--I'll be the driver / In my car--I'm in control" ("In My Car (I'll Be The Driver)") with a significant speed is impressive.

Not all of the songs are fast, though, as the final track illustrates well. In addition to "When You Kiss Me," Up! has the ballad "It Only Hurts When I'm Breathing." "It Only Hurts When I'm Breathing" is a pretty standard song about the loss of love with lines like "I'm not surprised just how well I survived / I'm over the worst, and I feel so alive / I can't complain--I'm free again / And it only hurts when I'm breathing / My heart only breaks when it's beating / My dreams only die when I'm dreaming / So, I hold my breath--to forget." Twain performs is beautifully with a slow sense of anguish that she connotes perfectly through her vocals. It stands out because it is unlike so many of the other more energetic songs on the album.

Arguably the most recognizable song - at least to mainstream audiences - is the hit song "Forever And For Always." That song has very little that makes it country, though it does have the instrumentation on this album that makes it more passable for those who have an affinity for classic Country. "Forever And For Always" gets a lot of points for its sheer charm as a fun little love song. When Twain sings "I can still hear the words you whispered / When you told me / I can stay right here forever in your arms / And there ain't no way-- / I'm lettin' you go now / And there ain't no way-- / And there ain't no how / I'll never see that day / 'Cause I'm keeping you / Forever and for always / We will be together all of our days / Wanna wake up every / Morning to your sweet face--always" ("Forever And For Always") it is hard for anyone who has ever experienced the excitement of love to not feel excited.

But for those looking for an album that sounds Country, the Country mixes of Up! are likely to disappoint. These are only slightly less pop than the "pop" versions and many who buy this album are likely to feel like they have simply succumbed to good marketing as opposed to good music.

The best song on this album is "It Only Hurts When I'm Breathing" and the low point is the undeniably pop "I'm Gonna Getcha Good!"

For other Artist Of The Month album reviews, please visit:
Break Every Rule - Tina Turner
Album 1700 - Peter, Paul And Mary
"The Power Of Love" (single) - Celine Dion


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

© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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