I don't like giving something a bad review. Be it a book, a CD, a film, or a painting I always try to look for something positive to say about it even if I don't like it personally. My taste isn't universal by any stretch of the imagination, so I try and put a review into a context that allows me to judge it somewhat objectively.
In the case of a music CD I'll look at production values, how well the performer has worked within the context of his or her genre, if the performance is of a professional quality, and, if there are lyrics in a language I understand, their emotional and intellectual merits. At least that way, even if I don't personally like what they are doing, I'll be able to have some way of telling potential customers if they've done a good or bad job at what they have attempted.
Maybe because I've been on the receiving end of critical reviews, I try to be as compassionate as possible when it comes to reviewing something somebody obviously has put a lot of effort into. But sometimes there is just no way around the fact something hasn't worked.
Unfortunately that's the conclusion I've reached after listening to a new release by singer Kacey Jones. She's known for her comedic works in the group Ethel and The Shameless Hussies and for working as a producer with the likes of Kinky Friedman. But whatever skills she may have exhibited in those endeavors seem to have deserted her on the CD Kacey Jones Sings Mickey Newbury.
Perhaps the style of music is beyond her capabilities either as producer or performer (she also produced all the songs), or perhaps the songs of Mickey Newbury aren't that good. Whatever the reason, this CD did absolutely nothing for me. There's a fine line between singing with and about genuine emotion and crossing over into sentimentality and mawkishness.
Kacey Jones Sings Mickey Newbury falls with a resounding thud on the cheap sentimental side of the line. Swelling strings in all the usual clichéd places, meaningful vocal tricks that have been used forever, and neutered pedal steel guitar all contribute to suck whatever life out of these songs that might have been in them originally.
Mickey Newbury recorded most of his music in Nashville so I suppose that makes him nominally a country musician. I think a person willing to commit to full country treatments of his music might have had more success with this material. But Miss Jones' interpretations have all the genuine emotional feel of a Las Vegas lounge act.
When I read someone like Kris Kristofferson referring to Mickey Newbury as "one of the great American songwriters" I know there has to be something to his songs that make them at least a cut above average. Sometimes it's hard to tell by just reading a song's lyrics how well it will translate into something song.
Reading the lyrics of Newbury's song "Songs of Sorrow" you can see it requires a delicate touch to support the emotional flow of the poetry. He utilizes the freedom that music gives a lyricist to evoke imagery and emotion. A producer and performer willing to be a vehicle could potentially make them wonderful.
Unfortunately that doesn't seem to be the style people are willing to produce anymore, and so the music on this album has been encumbered by far too much unnecessary baggage that takes away from any power the lyrics could potentially have. One of the problems with a tribute album is the music of the original composer is left at the mercy of whoever is rendering the tribute and the style they think is appropriate to his or her music.
The tribute albums I've found to work best have been those with a variety of artists contributing. This ensures a broad representation of interpretations, and gives the listener a better opportunity to appreciate the skills of the person being honored. If the style of one performer doesn't appeal to you, or isn't appropriate for the music in your opinion, than another might and you will have a better chance to judge the music's quality.
In this instance, Kacey Jones Sings Mickey Newbury, we aren't given the opportunity to discern anything about the nature of the music aside from the one-note interpretation Kacey Jones offers us. In spite of the musical variations, the bluesy "Apples Dipped In Candy" or the wistful "Ramblin' Blues", it's all delivered in a far too serious, almost melodramatic manner, robbing the songs of any humanity they may have.
Before this CD I had never heard any music by Mickey Newbury, so have nothing to compare the versions presented here against in terms of intent and meaning. Nor had I heard any of the work of Kacey Jones. There is no questioning the sincerity involved with this attempt to honor someone that Kacey obviously holds in high esteem. I just think it might have been better served by utilizing some of the people quoted in the notes singing Newbury's praises as direct participants instead of her singing all the material.
Given Kacey Jones' comedic background I would have expected a slightly lighter touch with her renditions of these songs, but unfortunately she has made the mistake of equating emotional truth with near-melodramatic presentation to the detriment of the material. Kacey Jones Sings Mickey Newbury does not strike me as a recording indicative of either her talents as a performer or Mickey's talents as a songwriter.