Bonnie Whitmore‘s second disc is crammed full of soulful, insistent Americana, with sharp-edged songs sometimes reminiscent of Tom Petty, delivered in a sure voice that’s both powerful and plaintive and throws in a touch of twang just when it feels most called for, as in the rootsy “Cryin’ Out for Me” and the elemental “The Gavel,” a pounding soured-love song that’s one of my favorites. In “Heartbreaker” (speaking of Tom Petty), she displays an ability to elevate lyrics that border on cliché (“You ain’t nothin’ but a heartbreaker/You ain’t nothin’ but a reason to cry”) with a compelling melody.
Yet while the songs and arrangements follow familiar patterns, tired cliché isn’t what Whitmore is about; it’s hooks. The more energetic songs, like “High in the Sky” and “There I Go Again,” shine with rock-and-roll joy that bring to mind Mary-Chapin Carpenter, while the more contemplative numbers, like “Colored Kisses” and “Heartbreaker,” get their strength from plainspoken, hummable melodies and precision arrangements often dressed up in organs and strings and mandolins. Harmony vocals are another strength on display in many of these songs, sweetness and raw emotion hanging together in the air in thrilling tension as she holds out those long notes.
“Too Much Too Soon” has a memorable hook and gratifying rave-up, while “You’re Going to Love Me” shows what a skillful melodist Whitmore is. But the best distillation of her style is a good-hearted paean to persistence called “Reckless and Young,” where a twelve-string guitar and a fiddle dance around an irresistible chorus built on a raw, basic 5-4-1 chord progression that illustrates as well as the lyrics do how “you can choose to be reckless and young.”
Elsewhere she sings, “Borderline, Borderline, everything’s fine ’til it’s not.” The borderline Whitmore walks, with a tread a good deal more surefooted than most sophomore-album artists can manage, is the one between familiarity and originality, planting solid footsteps on both sides.