If decades of rock ‘n’ country hell-raisin’ have taught us anything, it’s that you’ve gotta “grow up” some day – it’s either that or pass on passing out in a puddle of something liquid. Still, to anyone who followed pop music in the late seventies/early eighties, there’s a surprising rightness to the fact that the onetime Couple of Pop Cool, Carlene Carter & Nick Lowe, have released their introspective grown-up albums within months of each other. Carter, the ahead-of-her-time country pop princess, and Lowe, the prince of bash-it-out D.I.Y. pop-rock, were both once notorious for long bouts of self-destructive non-sobriety. Yet here they both are today, producing works that celebrate their survival.
In Carter’s case, that new release, Stronger (Yep Roc), represents her first album of original material in over a decade. The daughter of June Carter Cash – and stepdaughter of Johnny – Miz C. experienced a profound series of personal losses in 2003 when her longtime partner, mother, stepfather and little sister passed away in the same year. As with step-sister Roseanne Cash’s considerably darker ’06 album, Black Cadillac, the events of that hard year suffuse Carter’s release.
Not that you’d initially know it based on a cursory listen, since the bulk of Stronger‘s songs are punchy country-rock numbers. Take “The Bitter End” or “Break My Little Heart in Two,” which sound like the kind of rockin’ heartache numbers Dave Edmunds would’ve used to open one of his Rockpile-abilly elpees (Get It, maybe). Using sometime Doobie Brother John McFee as a multi-tracked multi-instrumentalist (also very Edmunds-like, come to think of it), Carter serves up plenty of energized tracks: the optimistic “Why Be Blue,” with its sprightly banjo backing; the mandolin-inflected and addictive neo-trad track, “To Change Your Heart;” the single-worthy love’s redemption song, “Bring Love,” with its smoothly hooky harmonic chorus and the knowing “On to You,” which has the kind of refrain Nick Lowe might’ve concocted during his peak. Never thought I’d hear the day when Carter would best her ex- in the realm of durable catchiness, but on Stronger she has.
She even includes a remake of the hard-rockin’ “I’m So Cool,” which manages to beat the curse of later year remakes by actually sounding punchier than the original. Part of the key to this is Carter’s voice, which has grown deeper and wiser sounding over the years. When she declares that “they got the balls, and I’ve got the bat,” you believe her at levels that the younger Cool Grrl couldn’t have conveyed.
But the songs that’ll most likely attract the attention of the long-term aficionados are two slower ones: Carlene’s tribute to the Man in Black (sung with current hubby Joe Breen), “It Takes One to Know Me” and the concluding title track, which describes her reaction to the death of her younger sister Rosey. The latter track is more effective than it has a right to be: every time the singer/songwriter approaches overly familiar country sentimentality, the song’s plain-spoken compelling chorus brings us back. It’s a tricky balancing act, but it looks like this onetime “hell-raising angel” has the clear-headed steadiness to pull it off.
Let’s hope the stronger Carlene Carter doesn’t take so long between this and her next disc. Powered by Sidelines