Sheryl Crow’s “100 Miles From Memphis” (2010) – The Weekend Review

By Chris Moore:

RATING:  1.5 / 5 stars

The sticker on the cover reads: “This album marks a long-awaited return by the 9x Grammy winner to the classic soul sounds that first drew her to making music.”

That may be, but the music she is making now — nearly two decades into her solo recording career — doesn’t hold a candle to the music she was making on her debut effort, never mind the albums that followed.

My criticism is not only that 100 Miles From Memphis has a decidedly retro sound, embracing the “classic soul sounds” for which Crow has such apparent respect.  And the record does have a pervasive retro quality, from the minimalist cover that conjures the vinyl pressings of the past to the background singers that sound like they were hand-picked from the 1950’s and 60’s.

No, my criticism falls upon what should be expected from a songwriter of Crow’s caliber.  Even within the general sound that she clearly had in mind, she could have found room to work creatively and intelligently.  Instead, many tracks, particularly in the first half of the album, suffer from vapid lyricism, the twice-too-long bug, and a serious case of the forgettables:  forgettable instrumentation, forgettable choruses, and even more forgettable background components, both vocals and horns.

The reason that Tuesday Night Music Club soared on the charts and sparked explosive sales (7x platinum and counting) is because it is an excellent album as a whole, composed of individually strong songs.  You must remember them: “Run Baby Run” with its rich reverb and allusive lyrics, “Leaving Las Vegas” replete with murky instrumentation and wonderfully ragged vocals, “All I Wanna Do” and all its various components — distinctive opening, great bass hooks, fun lyrics, catchy chorus, cool solo — that combine to make it one of the premier singles of the nineties (all three songs earn each moment of their respective five minute spans), and “Strong Enough” with sense enough to slow it down and take it acoustically for a while.

Oh, and I almost forgot “The Na-Na Song,” a track whose use of the na-na refrain is balanced by edgy, intelligent lyrics.

Read on for my “Na-Na Watch,” as well as my “Bawk Bawk Ba-bawk Alert.”

Sheryl Crow's "100 Miles From Memphis" (2010)

Sheryl Crow's "100 Miles From Memphis" (2010)

Now, I must go on record here that I do not — repeat NOT — subscribe to the “I wish Sheryl Crow still made music exactly like she did in the nineties” school of thought.

If you read through this album’s reviews on iTunes, you’ll find plenty of them.

I am, rather, a proponent of music that is clearly written in a given songwriter’s own style, whatever that may be at any given time.  If that style is a “return to roots” approach, then the resulting tracks should not simply be imitative of a time period or genre that sparks the songwriter’s interest.  This is the realm of the young artist, experimenting in covers to formulate his/her own style, or of the old and/or lost artist seeking to return to his/her precursors in order to get on a path that will lead to new endeavors.

And I certainly can’t get behind artists who only record acoustic covers and post them online for no profit.

Well, maybe I can get behind that.

The point is that 100 Miles From Memphis is composed of tracks that blend into a fairly homogeneous sound: of guitars, of vocals, etc.  The life in “Our Love is Fading” is lost after about three minutes — and that’s only half way through!  “Eye to Eye” could easily be mistaken for a lost B-side from some forgotten, unsuccessful Motown band.

Then there is “Summer Day,” an upbeat, single-worthy song that indulges in not only the sound of the sixties, but, surprisingly for an artist like Crow, the standard bow to chauvinism embraced in music of the time period, not to mention now.  She sings, “I just wanna be what you want me to.  That summer day changed it all; you came into my life, and you let me fall in love with you.”  The singer wants to conform, and is excited that someone “let” her fall in love?  To be fair, she most likely intends to capture the simplicity of early love, calling on the imagery of summer, but it is just one more reason to treat 100 Miles From Memphis with hesitation.

It should be noted that by “Summer Day,” a mere four songs into the record, there have been two songs that rely heavily on the “na-na” background vocals.

Just saying.

Elsewhere, Crow is concerned about politics and society.  The most obvious example of this is “Say What You Want,” a track on which she unfolds her concerns, yet seems to have confused actual indifference with her typical, at times tongue-in-cheek nonchalance.

There are some standout tracks.  “Peaceful Feeling” almost makes the cut, but for the “ba-ba” backgrounds that sound decidedly like her bandmates are mimicking chickens.  And she joins them before it’s over.  (If someone can formulate a way to listen to this track without hearing “bawk bawk ba-bawk”drowning out the other components, please let me know by commenting below.)

The redeeming songs on this album — and the reason I elevated my review from less than one star to one and a half — are tracks 8, 9, and 10.  “Stop” is perhaps the slowest song on the album, but the lyrics and emotion of her vocals converge and are aptly backed by subdued background vocals and instrumentation.  “Sideways” offers a standout Citizen Cope cover, featuring a beautiful duet with the man himself; the song stretches on a bit, but the length is largely managed by the progressive build-up of the arrangement.

The title track is the one song on the entire album that is imbued with not only a sense of Crow’s mastery of retro sounds but also the incorporation of her own songwriting style.  The background vocals are beautifully reminiscent of the best Motown has to offer.  The band sounds like a Motown studio band, yet they paint the corners with subtle, creative flecks of modernity.  And, above all, Crow’s lead vocal is crisp, a blend between gritty and silky that only she can pull off.

If all the songs on 100 Miles From Memphis were as engaging as “100 Miles From Memphis,” this review would have taken on an entirely different tone.  Indeed, this reviewer wouldn’t have spent so much time the past few days reminiscing about how truly outstanding some of her previous albums have been — Tuesday Night Music Club (1993), The Globe Sessions (1998), & Wildflower (2005).  And I certainly wouldn’t have spent so much time worried that Crow will never quite recapture her creative spirit.  (I’m not exactly having nightmares to the tune of the terrible C’mon C’mon (2002) and the hit-and-miss Detours (2008), but I’m not listening to those albums in the daytime, either.)

Bottom line: I’ll keep buying Crow’s albums, but after two decades, it appears she’s fallen back into the realm of having to prove her viability as an artist.

Music Review: Marcy Playground’s “Leaving Wonderland…in a fit of rage”

RATING:  3 / 5 stars

By Chris Moore:

To be honest, Marcy Playground is a band I had forgotten about, leaving them behind in a hazy collection of other nineties modern rock one hit wonders.

Out of sheer curiosity, I felt the urge to hear this most recent album from the “Sex and Candy” singer — it was originally slated as a John Wozniak solo project — that I came across on the Newbury Comics new release rack.  (It certainly didn’t hurt that the disc came with a free download of their previous album, the aptly titled third release from the band: MP3.)

I didn’t expect much, considering that over a decade had passed since I had heard a song from the band.  I always liked “Sex and Candy,” but even in 1997 I knew it was a fairly straightforward track made notable only by its provocative lyrics and Wozniak’s low, unique vocal tones.

What I got was a solid album comprised predominantly of an artist’s exploration of the roots of his music.  Throughout Leaving Wonderland…in a fit of rage, Wozniak’s songwriting is simple and the band’s arrangements are as standard as they come.

When I use the term “solid,” I mean that Marcy Playground’s fourth release is comprised of generally enjoyable songs placed in an effective order to not only keep the listener’s attention, but also to contribute to a largely common set of themes.

And, yes, beyond all these qualifications that I am making, there exists the realization that a “solid” album may be listened to and even appreciated, but it is nothing special.

As with their late nineties single, one of the greatest strengths of the album is Wozniak’s signature vocals.  Throughout the album, he weaves tales of sorrow, loss, and reconsideration.  Whatever “Wonderland” represents for Marcy Playground’s John Wozniak — a relationship or fame to name just a couple possibilities — the exit from said Wonderland is indeed a violent one, soaked in booze and drugs and, at times, literally marked by flames.

“Blackbird,” the opening track and the first US single, sets the tone for what is a heavily acoustic record, a notable departure from their previous release.  “Irene” and “Memphis” are so acoustic and rootsy that they sound as though they were snatched from a decades old country/folk record.

Meanwhile, the album is spiced up by tracks like “Devil Woman” and “Good Times” — the first Canadian single — which are predominantly acoustic, and yet endowed with a heavy beat and a set of catchy vocals.

Of course, the album is not without its electric touches.  “I Must Have Been Dreaming” is a clean and catchy cut, but “I Burned the Bed” and “Emperor” are drenched in distortion and lie at the heart of this album, both thematically and musically.  “Gin and Money” offers the complete package — opening with a nearly tribal beat, subtle but integral piano, and acoustic fingerpicking before kicking into high gear with a little feedback and a lot of spirited vocals and electric guitar.

Overall, I score this album as a “Maybe Not.”  I’m glad I bought it, and I’ve listened to it almost twenty times already.  I truly enjoy many of the tracks, and Wozniak has crafted the order to ebb and flow at just the right times.

However, what doesn’t hit home with me is the simplicity of the lyrics — referring to himself directly in “Good Times,” taking the bright and instantly-stuck-in-your-head “Star Baby” and crippling it with cheesiness, and feeding into some middle school-worthy rhymes in “Thank You,” to name a few instances.  This is my most significant criticism; even the largely predictable arrangements fit within the larger context of the album.

This is an album about coming to terms with the universal thematic subject matter of love and youth lost, of having to grow up after having lost something to the ravages of time.  If you can look past the simplicity of many of the thoughts being conveyed, then this album is worth a listen.

If not, then it might be time for you to go back to the classics — Dylan, Beatles, etc.  Or at least to last year’s Counting Crows album.