Saturday, July 2, 2011

Album Review: Dolly Parton - Better Day

If there's one recurrent theme in the new Dolly Parton album Better Day, it's definitely a message of positivity.  Throughout its twelve tracks, Better Day proclaims the virtues of living life to the fullest, and displaying a "can-do" attitude.  But at least Dolly's happy songs are good happy songs, making use of poetic imagery rather than inspirational cliches.

The theme becomes evident right from the opening track.  "In the Meantime" definitely seems like a relevent composition in this day and age, given the recent brouhaha surrounding the expected "end of the world."  Backed by an upbeat piano and harmonica-driven arrangement, Dolly urges us all not to be "so consumed with the fear of dyin'/ The joy of livin's lost."  With her signature attitude, she calls for all to "Drop this Doomsday attitude and git on with the show!"  Things become slightly less sunny on tracks like "I Just Might" and "Get Out And Stay Out," but even these comparitively somber tracks carry traces of that same theme.  The former is a song of dawning positivity in the midst of heartbreak, while the latter is a strong-woman's declaration that she is leaving her abusive spouse, and "taking back [her] life."

Unlike her previous effort (2008's Backwoods Barbie), which found Dolly covering both Smokey Robinson and the Fine Young Cannibals, Better Day is composed entirely of self-written songs (though Mac Davis also shares a writing credit on country-pride anthem "Country Is As Country Does," which I enjoy about as much as I could enjoy a country-pride anthem).  Dolly Parton ranks as one of the most consistently excellent singer-songwriters in country music, and it's clear that her pen hasn't run out of tricks just yet.  On a similar note, it's nothing short of astounding to hear an artist in such remarkably fine voice at the age of 65.  Throughout the album, Dolly's vocals sound consistently fantastic, whether pouring her pipes into a rousing up-tempo or a sorrowful torch ballad like the achingly beautiful "Somebody's Missing You," which includes background vocals from Alison Krauss and Emmylou Harris.

Stylisitically, Better Day sounds quite similar to Backwoods Barbie, in that it sounds largely modern and contemporary, but still shows a connection to traditional country music, with influence from other genres as well.  The album takes on a gospel-oriented direction near the end, particularly on the soulful title track.  The only instance in which production becomes an issue is on leadoff single "Together You and I" - a contemporary pop-country love song like you'd expect to hear on the radio today, but with some cluttered and distracting production.  The song has grown on me since I reviewed it last month, but "Together You and I" remains the weakest track on the album.  Producer Kent Wells adds his own voice to the album on the full-fledged duet "Holding Everything," which takes the form of a romantic power ballad, but with the production maintaining just enough restraint to avoid being overly bombastic.  Kent and Dolly's voices mesh together well, with their dynamic performances making "Holding Everything" an album highlight.

Of course, it should be noted that sad songs have a long and prestigious history in country music, but that's one end of the emotional spectrum that Better Day doesn't tread on very heavily.  That means that if you're down and out, and just looking for good old barroom weeper to cry in your beer to, there aren't any songs on this album that would suit that particular purpose.  The album works better as the soundtrack to a cheery summer day than to a self-pity party.

To Dolly's credit, however, the songs carry a measure of substance such that the glass-half-full anthems do not ring vague or hollow.  Though it could benefit from a little extra thematic variance, Better Day ultimately works as a solid if not special entry into Dolly Parton's extensive album discography.

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