Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Album Review: Sara Evans - Stronger

The following review is a guest contribution by Stephen Fales

 Multi-platinum recording artist Sara Evans is well known for her impeccable country credentials. This farmer's daughter grew up singing and playing mandolin in her family's bluegrass band from the age of four, paid her dues covering country standards in honky tonks as a teenager, and was discovered and promoted by Harlan Howard himself. During the course of her 14-year professional career, Evans has managed to please critics and fans alike with the artful blend of traditional and contemporary sounds in her music.

 Now after an extended hiatus, Sara Evans is back with her sixth studio album, Stronger. Like a refreshing breeze sweeping over an arid musical landscape, Sara's warm and expressive voice is welcome relief, returning like an old friend. She sounds as glorious as ever, friendly and fun on the uptempo numbers like "Anywhere" and full of heartland pathos on ballads like "Alone," which seems to be on-deck for the next single.

Stronger took roughly two years to produce amidst several false starts, trial balloon singles that fell out of consideration, as well as some very worthy songs ("In the Pines" comes to mind) that didn't make the final cut. But the one song that should have been left on the cutting room floor unfortunately became the album's opener. "Desperately" is the weakest lead track from any of Sara's albums to date. The melody is forgettable, the lyrics trite and the overwrought production and bubblegum harmony sounds like something from the Partridge Family.

Fortunately, "Desperately" does not set the tone for the entire record, and the album just gets better from there - much better. The captivating title cut "A Little Bit Stronger" (as of this writing, a top 20 hit) has already garnered many fans from it's inclusion on the Country Strong movie soundtrack, but even this first single is not the strongest song on the record. That distinction is shared by the rollicking "Ticket to Ride", (not the Beatles' classic, but a brand new song co-authored by Evans and the great Leslie Satcher) and "What That Drink Cost Me."

On an album like Stronger there are many potential hit singles. But "Ticket to Ride" may well be the ultimate "worth the price of admission" song. It is a rebound love story that really takes flight, and Evans brings it home for a landing with finesse and a breathtaking vocal flourish at the end.

"What That Drink Cost Me" is a heart wrenching lament, a traditional sounding cautionary tale of the sometimes fatal risk of having one too many. "If you could put a price tag on everything that haunts me then you'd know, what that drink cost me."

Sara's homespun vocals serve her very well as she pours her country soul into nine worthy vessels. Her voice still has that fine wine flavor to it, and is a supple, nuanced and at times intoxicating instrument. As usual, she displays an artistically mature command of dynamics and nuance. The inherent rich and rustic textures of her voice work extremely well on the more traditional numbers as expected, but her vocal timbre is also very well suited to the more pop-oriented material such as her remake of Rod Stewart's "My Heart Can't Tell You No". Saturated with steel and drenched with sadness, the spell of Sara's wailing vocals transforms the Stewart classic is into a real country heartache song.

Stronger contains only 10 songs, but this quality-over-quantity approach works very well for the most part. This is a well-balanced, well-produced album thanks to Nathan Chapman, Tony Brown and to co-producer Sara Evans herself. It features a great mix of moods and tempos, as well as various country musical styles ranging from contemporary to neotraditional and bluegrass. And once again, Evans demonstrates what a capable songwriter she is, having co-written six of the ten tracks including some of the album's finest. Brother Matt Evans is also credited as a writing partner on three songs, including the delightfully electric and syncopated "Anywhere."

Stronger is a thoroughly enjoyable album and a most welcome return. It is a worthy addition to Sara's solid discography, but as great as it is, it doesn't really seem to advance the state of her art. Stronger seems to be a plateau album, but with Sara's usual high standard for excellence, at least the plateau is a lofty one. In this age of cookie-cutter songstesses, Sara Evans has carved out her own niche and coined her own unique sound, a distinctive blend of pop and pure country. Still, the hope remains that Sara will delve even more deeply into her pure country roots next time and harvest a great bluegrass or pure country album, something truly timeless and remarkable for her legacy. By digging deeper, there is little doubt that she could climb even higher.

Sara closes Stronger with a wonderful bluegrass remake of her signature classic "Born to Fly." This latest rendition is brilliant but overly percussive, and would have been even better with dueling fiddles blazing away for a fade-out finale that would have rivaled the awesome original. Still, this performance, like the album as a whole, is ample reminder that more than anything else Sara Evans was born to make great music.

(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10)