Tuesday, May 11, 2004

Loretta Lynn's Van Lear Rose

I can't get over how good this record is. I've listened at least daily (three times today and counting) and it never fails to enthrall me. I don't know if it's because Loretta Lynn is such an inspiration to Jack White that he carried that spark back to her own creative process, or because Ms. Lynn had such a back log of worthy material because of her extended creative hiatus while she cared for her dying husband. Both scenarios are believable if you read the May 9, 2004, interview with Loretta and Jack in the New York Times. In any event, Van Lear Rose is a truly remarkable record that every music fan should own.

Relevant Magazine ran my review of the cd which I'll share with you all here:

Loretta Lynn, Van Lear Rose
Interscope Records
Produced by Jack White
By Brad Caviness

Those reading who attained consciousness before 1980, probably have a potent memory of going to the movies as a child with their parents (or in my case, grandparents) to see Coal Miner's Daughter, the film based on the life story of superstar country music performer, Loretta Lynn. If you're younger than that, chances are you've caught the film numerous times as a rental or on cable TV. If you're like me, even if you never bought another Loretta Lynn record, you still carried a soft spot in your heart for her and her music after seeing the movie.

If that's the case, her new release, Van Lear Rose, is sure to not only stir fond memories, but also give you a whole new appreciation for this legendary performer. It's a country comeback album on the order of Johnny Cash's American Recordings or Dolly Parton's Little Sparrow. Loretta Lynn not only reaches back to her roots to find what made her so compelling in the beginning, but also discovers she still has something new to say. The result is a record that finds Ms. Lynn at the peak of her creative powers.

Part of the revitalization, no doubt, is the involvement of indie rocker Jack White of the White Stripes as the project's producer. Just as renowned alternative music producer Rick Rubin was given much of the credit for orchestrating Johnny Cash's return to form, White is clearly the impetus for the excitement Loretta exhibits on this record. But unlike Rubin, who distilled Cash's sound by stripping away everything that wasn't Cash and then got out of the way, White's fingerprints are everywhere on this album. From the sound of an amplifier's hum that opens the record, to his vocal duet and the decidedly Euro rock introduction on "Portland, Oregon," and the raucous, noisy, garage-blues stomp of "Have Mercy" and "Mrs. Leroy Brown," this is clearly new territory for Loretta, but she's more than equal to the task. It's hard to say whether the excitement and confidence in her delivery is the result of or the inspiration for the young band's spirited delivery.

Which is not to say that there isn't plenty of "traditional" country music on the record, though it's a far cry from the rhinestone-studded, big-haired music of Loretta's earlier heyday. For one, she wrote every song on this record (one was co-written with White, and another with her late husband, Doo). Secondly, both she and White seem to understand that the most successful comebacks are the ones that not only energize old fans, but also win new ones. To accomplish that, the focus is squarely on Loretta's story telling — her ability to write songs that resonate with the listener on an emotional level, and characters real enough to make the song seem autobiographical, even when it's not.

Musically, though, she's got a new axe to grind. She's out to prove that over 40 years in the spotlight hasn't dulled her edge one iota. She's gone and made a record for those whose preference in country music leans towards the experimental approach of Wilco, the gut level busking of Old Crow Medicine Show, and the authoritarian stamp of the recent Johnny Cash, in which he took from disparate sources (such as folk and traditional country, heavy metal and alternative rock, and his own compositions new and old) and made each selection uniquely his own. She is at the top of her game on this record, thus Van Lear Rose seems much less like Jack White reinventing Loretta Lynn than Loretta bending White to her will.

The arrangements are kept purposefully simple: an acoustic and/or electric guitar, bass, drums and a fiddle or pedal steel. The songs are given just enough polish to sparkle, but not so much that the spotlight strays from Loretta for long. And she shines. She delivers the strongest set of material since her commercial peak in the ‘70s, perhaps since the beginning of her career. She celebrates rural living in cuts like "Van Lear Rose," "High On A Mountain Top" and "Little Red Shoes" (a stand-out cut in which White provides instrumentation to a spoken monologue delivered in a concert recording). "Family Tree" and "Women's Prison" tell two arresting tales of women scorned, while "Portland, Oregon" and "Mrs. Leroy Brown" are scorching, bluesy, honky tonk anthems. “God Makes No Mistakes” is a potent statement of old-time gospel faith in the face of life’s adversity. More touching moments come when Loretta references her late husband. "Trouble Down The Line" is a sad tale of a relationship drifting apart while "Miss Being Mrs." is Loretta at her most vulnerable, as she contemplates being a widow and reminisces about her 48-year marriage.

Van Lear Rose finds Loretta at the absolute zenith of her abilities. She sings with such passion and conviction that old school fans can surely over-look the rock 'n' roll bent, and new school fans will be astounded that a septuagenarian can rock so hard.

1 comment:

Lincoln Matters said...

I keep hearing good things about Van Lear Rose. I'll have to check it out.

Your review was great. Thanks for reposting it. Extra credit for saying "She's gone and made a record", something I imagine Ms. Lynn herself saying.