Wednesday, May 27th, 2009

Reba McEntire – Strange

The venerable institution keeps plugging along…


Dave Moore: In which Reba suggests what Miranda Lambert might sound like if she’d turned to Ben & Jerry’s instead of Gunpowder & Lead. I guess the point is that either way you get over it, but I imagine one of them is more satisfying.

Doug Robertson: Does Reba McEntire try to sound like every female country singer ever, or is every female country singer ever trying to sound like Reba McEntire? It does seem like Reba’s more than happy to try and sound ever more Reba-ish, enthusiastically giving the audience what they want without ever allowing the 21st century to even begin casting its influence over her work.

Chuck Eddy: Reba’s the female version of Randy Travis or George Strait in that she peaked artistically as a “neotraditionalist” nigh on a quarter-century ago (“Whoever’s In New England,” 1986, to be exact) and she’s mostly rested on her laurels since. But listening to “Strange” now, I really do like its undulating Middle-Easternish psych chords (reminds me of the Yardbirds, or even more so “Pictures Of Matchstick Men”), and Reba rides the shakey stomp capably, OD-ing on chocolate after getting dumped and buying a sexy new dress to change her man’s mind like Lorrie Morgan in “Something In Red.” Her drawl is only slightly less polite than its by-the-book norm, and any number of current country women could have put over the lyrics more forcefully. But the music behind the diva has an undeniable churn, and it nearly carries the day.

Matt Cibula: I think I’m supposed to be upset by all the banging and clashing and thrashing going on in the background, or all the densely-packed wordifyin’ of the verses, but I’m choosing to instead just be thrilled by the toughness of Reba’s vocals and the song’s scenario.

Alfred Soto: Reba would like Carrie, Gretchen and Miranda to know that she’s been singing this passive-aggressive shit for twenty years, thank you very much. Something’s off, though: she tugs at the chorus too harshly for my taste; the arrangements are too loud, too busy. She wants you to notice the creative-writing details in the lyrics even when they’re decorating a dress we’ve seen too many times (the chocolates and the Kleenex are nice touches).

Martin Skidmore: I like the lyrics: she is telling us it’s strange she isn’t as heartbroken as she is supposed to be, and they are written with excellent scansion and wit, and she delivers them with confidence. I’d rather have heard Carrie Underwood do this, but this is fine.

Anthony Easton: Reba’s ability to know where country is going and historicise it should never be underestimated. This takes all of those young girls who keep trying rock and roll and puts them in their places — just as in her previous single, this needs to be sung by a woman, and an angry woman, to have the exact level of self control and desire for oblivion to work as a feedback loop of self-loathing and the Pyhrric potential of love gone wrong. Plus how she extends the vowels of the title into the upper register, how they sound strained but refuse the usual melodrama; the self-control of the whole thing has to be sung by a woman who knows what happens when that control is lost.

Martin Kavka: A woman finds herself oddly refreshed after being dumped. A listener finds himself oddly energized after three minutes, even though he knows that that energy is completely manufactured and therefore a lie. Who knows why these things happen? But they do.

Michaelangelo Matos: One of my favorite singles of 2008 — from an ’07 album — was Reba and Kenny Chesney’s “Every Other Weekend,” which loads of people who listen to country far more than I do assure me isn’t really that good. I dunno — it’s rare that a tearjerker actually works on me, and that one did. It’s kind of a relief to feel indifferent to this charger: nope, she can’t kill me with just any old lyric. Still, I think I need to dive into her catalog for real.

Ian Mathers:Note the rather mind-boggling fact that McEntire has been making albums since 1977. Rock acts that old that sound this vital and, frankly, fun, are few and far between (possibly because of the lack of bias in country against singing other’s songs, as it’s arguably easier to retain a good ear for songs over the course of decades than it is to retain songwriting ability), and it’s entirely due to the force and colour of her performance that I can get over the fact that I don’t think I actually like her voice. But in action, with those fiddles, singing a song about how she’s utterly unheartbroken by breaking up, it’s a sublimely perfect marriage of instrument and message. Songs of resilience are always better than songs of codependence.

9 Responses to “Reba McEntire – Strange”

  1. For what it’s worth, I’m not convinced that Reba has ever made an album as strong as Carrie’s, Gretchen’s, or (definitely) Miranda’s best. She’s more of a hack than most of the raves above give her credit for, and her ratio of chaff to wheat has been unimpressively high for ages. Working at Billboard, I became queasily convinced that she (and her ruthless publicity machine) expend more energy on reaffirming her brand than making good records. So I kind of don’t buy all the paid-her-dues crap — Just like with Travis and Strait, the fact that she’s been around forever doesn’t mean she’s not mediocre. But Nashville tastemakers will give her a free pass, anyway; they’re like that. As for rock bands this old, I’ll take the far older Deep Purple’s or ZZ Top’s ’00s over hers, any day. But again, I do still like this single, and I’m glad I’m not alone.

  2. This thing reeks more of survivorhood and craft than inspiration. She barely gets away with it, which is, I guess, a tribute to the pluses of craft and surviorhood.

  3. I’ve always been against the ‘paid their dues’ line. In Reba’s case, I think it gives her a level of confident craft (which is part of delivering the lyrics very well here), but it doesn’t say anything about making good records – I entirely agree about the hack element.

  4. Randy Travis mediocre? No way. You can complain about some of the songs he has in his catalog. But you could do that with other acts from the Neo-Trad era, including John Anderson. Or Merle, George Jones, Tammy, Loretta, Dolly etc. And no one says they are hacks or medicore. Regardless, John Anderson is pretty great, and if you had said one of the best singers in Country history, then you would have been right about Randy Travis, too.

  5. I’ve never understood why Randy Travis is considered a great country singer. He’s got a good voice which suits him well when he’s given a good song, but it’s never added up to any kind of interesting personality for me. And he’s always been inconsistent, to my ears, even when he was at what most people seem to consider his artistic peak — I paid $1 each for both 1988’s Old 8×10 and 1986’s Storms Of Life this year, and the former is pretty good (not great, and not good all the way through either); the latter disappointingly dull so far, though I’m still working on it. Strangely, though, I’ve thought the most recent albums by Travis, Strait, and Reba have all sounded okay (the Strait and Reba ones just out this month.) So it’s possible I’ve been underrating them all along, but my impression is that (beyond occasional sparks of inspiration and beauty) they’ve all been mostly spinning their wheels for the past two decades. I’d love to hear specific recommendations that prove me wrong, however.

  6. I suggest you give Storms of Life another spin. For me that album hit me the first time through in 1986. The followup Always and Forever is worth a listen. As for the rest of his Album catalog, I’d look for 1989’s No Holdin’ Back or 1994’s This Is Me. George Strait has a better track record of album consistency. But then again, unlike Travis, he’s knocked out more product. I’ve always thought Travis was more than a singles artists. But then again when you’re a fan of someone you tend to defend them. I thnk his album cuts are sometimes better than the singles. Especially in the last 10 years or so. The best Travis collection is the Rhino double disco Trail of Memories. And last year Warner put out a compilation of his Gospel (or Contemporary Christian) stuff that’s good.

  7. I just think he’s basically too reserved my tastes, in general. Too mainstream protestant, or something. Too bland, but that doesn’t necessarily mean his fans find him bland. (I’d actually argue that Randy Travis’s fans like blandness, but that just assumes their ears are mine, which they’re not.) I’ve also been listening to Strait’s Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind from 1984 (another $1 purchase), and I actually prefer that to either of the well-regarded ’80s Travis LPs I bought, though not to any number of ’80s John Anderson LPs I’ve loved since, well, the ’80s.

    John is my man, always has been. But then, he’s a rocker, with a wild streak and a randy sense of humor and clattering sense of rhythm that would scare George and Randy back to the farm (or to church), so it’s no surprise I’d like him more.

    One thing I’ve been wondering about Strait is whether he’s ever put out an entire album of Western Swing. He’s good at that stuff; I like when he does it. Fort Worth has a couple decent cuts along the lines. But still, I gotta say — compared to the original ’40s Western Swingsters (or even to, say, Merle, when he’s gone that route), George is way too polite. Guess I’m just not a huge fan of polite country. But I will keep an eye out for those Travis titles you named, if they’re lying around cheap anymore — Thanks for the tips.

  8. Also probably worth noting that Jawn Anderson has way way way more edge to his singing — way more hick to his drawl, which is where a lot of his humor and personality comes from — than Strait and Travis.

    That said, Tom is right about Storms Of Life, which I just relistened to, apparently with a more open mind — It’s a good album. Interestingly, I like a bunch of songs more than the supposed career single “On The Other Hand”: the title track, “Diggin’ Up Bones,” “Send My Body” (though no way is Travis convincing as a criminal facing the gallow’s pole or electric chair), “Reasons I Cheat” (which is nicely jazzy). “On The Other Hand,” though, is based on an intense situation and a perfect pun, but Randy just sounds bored with it. It’s a real good example of what bugs me about him.

  9. I would say that Anderson’s love of classic Rock adds to his edge. Of course he rocks harder than Strait or Travis, his very early influences were Rock artists. Strait and Travis don’t have that background. Travis with his baritone and Strait’s smoother approach. Travis is a disciple of Lefty, Merle and George Jones and a name not mentioned very often, Charley Pride. Strait would say those are his favorite’s too, but his Texas roots (when they show up on his records) reveal someone who loves the Western Swing of Bob Wills and others of that genre. So, most of those early years rubbed off on their records. Just like Anderson’s love of the Rolling Stones showed up on his. I agree with you on “Reasons I Cheat”, which could be my favorite Travis ballad. It never was released as a single, but I remember when he broke big hearing it on the radio.