What’s the matter with the tunes that I’m hearin’?
Can’t you tell that they’re all the same?
Yes, I can. I have been pondering this one Grey Delisle and her debut album The Small Time now for a little longer than that and cannot shake the feeling that I am listening to a more stylized Jewel. Now depending on which side of the fence you’re straddling, that can either be terrific news or cause to smash a few acoustic guitars. I’m sure you don’t have to really guess which side I’m on. But for the sake of reviewing this fairly, let’s spin the music one more time for those who may want to purchase this album sometime.
The Back Story: Delisle is from Mexican/Irish descent and “raised on the honky tonk, hard-luck howlin’ of Haggard, Jones, Jennings, and Cash” (so the tale goes on the press release). Grey wrote her first tune “Buckle Shoes” at five years old, and many years later in 1998 she fronted an all-girl “cowpunk/surf ban” called Side Saddle. Shortly thereafter she met up with Jake La Botz (“blues prodigy”) and Marvin Etzioni of Lone Justice. The seeds of The Small Time were sown and this record I see before me was created. As a side note, please know that Delisle has recently been collaborating with such artists as Murry Hammond of the Old 97s and even Willie Nelson. So how does this sound like Jewel if Delisle has so many classic country influences? I know, I was surprised as well, but somehow this is the case.
The Small Time is comprised of nine tracks, ranging from the Spanish “Sabor a Mi” (featuring a muted acoustic guitar that sounds like its barely getting its notes out) to the delicate “Loving in the Past”. I will admit that Delisle’s singing is much more twangy and “rootsy” than Jewel’s, but her inflection and handling of the material is almost too cute for words at times. Like in the opening cut “The Brick”. Check out the following:
If I burned up all your dancin’ shoes
And laughed out loud while you sang the blues
And told your sister that you wished her dead
If I had a kid by someone else
And said I’d rather burn in hell
Than sleep without my lover in your bed
Would you love me then?
Reading it may seem direct, but hearing Grey sing it is another thing entirely. She flits about the song between being tough and fey. It’s almost confusing to a fault. Does she want us to take her seriously, or is this track a bit of a tongue in cheek composition? To me, it sounds like Grey doesn’t care one way or another just as long as she gets the correct hint or “country” out in her delivery. Too bad for her as “The Brick” comes off sounding more like a folk experiment gone haywire. Plus the song doesn’t know when to end, rattling away under Delisle’s desperate delivery of the chorus at the conclusion for a time too many.
The same situation plagues Grey throughout the entire album. Just as soon as she starts seeming sincere and turning in some believable performances in an almost Emmylou Harris kind of way, the preciousness rears its ugly head once more and dashes that illusion away. Whether she’s reminiscing about her daddy playing the “gee-tar” when she was a kid in “Sing to Me”, or the rehashing the familiar country breakup song territory of “Blue State of Mind”, Delisle remains on the sidelines. Her voice is pleasant and the songs float by effortlessly, but I’m afraid this is another case of a new artist getting stuck in someone else’s shoes. Perhaps that will change on the next album.
This is not to say that Jewel and Delisle fans will be one and the same. There may very well be a wide chasm between the two. I can only report on how I feel about the work. Honestly, I wish I didn’t feel that the comparison existed, but as I said it’s been a feeling that I haven’t been able to shake since first hearing The Small Time. Still, I do see Grey having a following with this set of songs and plenty of opportunity to grow and flourish in the future. Sometimes debut albums are only the tip of the iceberg. The Small Time seems to be a case of just that.