April 29, 2004

A Rose With Thorns

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It’s rarely necessary to defend an entire genre before reviewing a single album, but since the majority of daze’s readers are college students with an insolent aversion to country music, it couldn’t hurt: Loretta Lynn’s endless series of hits in the ’60s and ’70s are about as sonorous and exhilarating as music gets. Far from the depraved Nashville sheen of modern country radio, Loretta’s from an era when Johnny Cash and George Jones were paving the way for country-rockers like Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons. Such classics as “You Ain’t Woman Enough” and “Out of My Head and Back In My Bed” are suffused with enough understatement, charcoal irony, and jittery bravado that even the most callous metal fan must doff his hat and drain some tears.

Which is apparently exactly what happened when The White Stripes’ Jack White was a little Detroit thug who ransacked sawdust stores, replaced his hair with a broken mop, and pretended to study the blues while actually studying Zeppelin IV. After The Stripes covered one of Loretta’s songs last year, a manager alerted the country singer. Needless to say, Loretta hasn’t exactly been busy in the last few years, and was more than anxious to jumpstart her career with a little help from the Next Big Thing in Rock. White signed on as producer, and the resulting album, Van Lear Rose, was heralded as a startling return-to-form, as if the National Guard would have to be deployed to suppress the hysterical Loretta fans outside TRL studios.

From the title track onwards, it’s immediately evident that Loretta is still an incomparable country singer. However, this is often shown by throwing herself into relief; she is not a very good rock vocalist, and many of these tracks are rock songs. The sneaking suspicion is that Loretta would be far better off on this album if she was left alone with her tunes, without that leering, conniving egomaniac White standing behind her, straddling his fuzzed guitar at all times. Country music is sparse and cinematic; it leaves itself open to wide landscapes and myopic consciences. The instruments — steel pedal, fiddle, etc. — are piercing, singular tones traveling on specific trajectories. It’s a genre that emphasizes fragility and sympathy. The choruses of the title track and “Women’s Prison” are simple epics, flaunting Loretta’s clipped phrasing and quivering lungs, but the guitar is bombastic, reckless, and doddering. Her voice should be floating on top of these great songs; instead, it sounds like the guitar is out for her head.

The actual duet with White, “Portland Oregon,” is an unmitigated disaster. The band is indistinct and clumsy, occasionally (and accidentally) lurching into bland hard rock morasses. That’s not to say this album is worthless — it’s often quite exceptional — but its worth seems inversely proportional to White’s influence: “Trouble on the Line” is a stunningly hushed mixed metaphor of phones, trains, and relationships, and “Family Tree” is a scuffling, sinking malady with the classic line, “Their daddy once was a good man/ Until he ran into trash like you.” “High On a Mountain Top” shimmies around in a smoking hootenanny, cindering down Pa’s cabin. But these songs can still affect and reverberate in the company of White’s slovenly production. As one of her great songs go, the squaw is still on the warpath, and Jack White better watch his ridiculous hat.

Archived article by Alex Linhardt
Red Letter Daze Editor-in-Chief