If you were to title your album The Story of My Life, you’d probably want it to be full of meaningful self-exploration and discoveries about what truly separates you from the rest of us six billion wannabes. You’d think of your album as an aural autobiography. Perhaps in the act of writing it you’d also learn new things about yourself; surprising things, enlightening things. What an interesting and worthwhile endeavor! That would seem to be the mission and intent of Deana Carter on, you guessed it, The Story of My Life. A three-year-old Deana even graces the cover, looking adorable and thoughtful with white-puff dandelions in hand. Her eyes are focused down, contemplative, as if even at her age she’s pondering the swift passage of time in the form of those once gloriously yellow weeds.
In her own words, the label “has given me an opportunity to express myself as a total artist and I am gratified that they fully support my creative vision. No one at the record label heard a note until the album was finished.” In this post-Yankee Hotel Foxtrot age, that represents Integrity and Credibility. And later, “I’m a big fan of ‘70s records where artists could draw on whatever influences they wanted.” Hello? Artists have always been able to draw on whatever influences they wanted. For crying out loud, Deana, you’ve been aggressively marketed as country for how many years, and you’re a pop singer! Exactly what influences have been suppressed for so long that can finally be aped in 2005, the Goo Goo Dolls?
“The Girl You Left Me For” kicks off the record and it’s like 1998 all over again. Words like “sassy” and “independent” float trademarked above the Meredith Brooks stomp. Or was that Shawn Colvin? Or Suzanne Vega? Or, gasp, Ashlee Simpson? “I wanna be the one that you adore / Yeah yeah yeah / Make me a puppet without any strings.” The song asserts itself with its loud/soft dynamics, demanding Oprah-empowered respect, while the lyrics are creepily servile and self-degrading. “Ordinary” sounds, well, ordinary, borrowing the familiar lope of Tom Petty’s “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” with some sugary Dixie Chick harmonies tossed in on the refrains. Although Carter is correct in her assessment that it’s nice to be able to be influenced by whatever you want, you know what they say about too many cooks in the kitchen. It’s hard to get a sense of who Deana Carter is when there is so little here to distinguish her from anyone else.
The quieter songs fare slightly better in this respect. Without the clutter of a big pop-rock arrangement, a song like “Atlanta and Birmingham” has a better shot of standing on its own. The song still flirts heavily with treacle but it’s the least overblown offering here. Carter’s production (vocal) skills are effective when she uses restraint. “Atlanta and Birmingham” ultimately builds to a stately, full-band chorus, but it’s tasteful and earned. “Not Another Love Song” has some nifty chord changes, even if Carter lays the sweetness on a bit thick. The ‘70s touch used here is that fluttery organ sound I can only ever describe as “buh-wuh-wuh-wuh.” “Sunny Day” is also possessed of a maturity that reins in the occasional over-emoting with a bluesy atmosphere that wouldn’t come off too badly alongside Bonnie Raitt.
Hopefully, the freedom of recording for an independent label as opposed to the pop country behemoths she’s used to, will yield more fruit the longer the relationship is sustained. Right now I don’t feel that much closer to the story of Carter’s life than I was for “Strawberry Wine” and “We Danced Anyway.” The Story of My Life should definitely please fans of her earlier records and anyone with a taste for quote-unquote country music. But if she’s on a quest for something more personal, more original, she’s got some more miles to travel.