You Can't Break Away Without the Chains
I know what you’re thinking. A Faith Hill greatest hits package equals an automatic festival of mediocrity. But you’d be wrong. There’s nothing festive about this collection’s mediocrity at all. With the exception of “This Kiss” and “The Secret of Life”, this is rough going from start to finish. Indeed, the backwards chronology of The Hits even hints that Hill’s sellout needn’t have been automatic either. She was clearly a savvy, talented entrepreneur who could have power-scored in the market without all the serviceable blonde genre massaging which has given her such a bad rep among snobs.
She started out a “womanchild in a state of grace”, asked for the moon & got it, and here’s the end result; a bland pop figure far more Céline Dion goes countrypop than Janie Fricke conquers the world. Still, her bod (currently the property of Tim McGraw) and voice work pretty well before Sunday Night Football, so maybe she retains some special magic we pointy-headed music critics can’t grasp or understand.
Here’s the breakdown. Of Hill’s 23 Billboard Top Ten country singles since 1993, only nine are represented on The Hits (“There You’ll Be” and “Cry”, dubious inclusions both as each barely missed the Top Ten). Two new songs (“Red Umbrella”, pretty good, and “Lost”, not so much) serve as fan bait, plus there’s a live version of “Stronger” from the lucrative 2007 Soul2Soul tour. Oh and also the duet “I Need You” from the last Tim McGraw album (marriage has its responsibilities, both corporate and personal). There are fifteen tracks total. Although I doubt anyone would really want to overdose on Faith Hill, this diluted selection not only underplays her market power, it ignores some decent hits such as “Let’s Go to Vegas” and “You Can’t Lose Me”.
So anyway, let’s talk about “Piece of My Heart” first. Legions of snark-artists have already laid waste to this bubbly cover of Janis Joplin’s (and Erma Franklin’s) pained classic, but here it is again among us. The original is an agonized come-on from a woman willing to undergo the cardiac amputations of disinterested sex just to keep that man around. That’s right, sex, the double-backed beast, which is totally absent from Hill’s cartwheeling interpretation, where a heart-piece feels like red construction paper falling to the floor. Shoulders batted by an inflatable doll now replace the dirty fingernails digging into shoulders in Janis Joplin’s version. For three minutes. Lock up your daughters.
On the other hand, I do surrender to the rhythmic crossover smash, “This Kiss”, which still sounds tongue-tied and joyous, just like a real first kiss! Hell, I even enjoy the cloying hook of forcing a tetrasyllabic adjective into all the song’s corners (“unstoppable”, “unsinkable”, “subliminal”). The one major flaw and you don’t need to be a physics major to know this, is that “centrifugal” means “pushing away from the center”, sending the protagonists apart. A kiss that is “centrifugal” (as Faith here describes it) surely can’t be melting any loins. Centripetal, sure, that woulda been a good description. That means you’re up in the tornado together, plus it wouldn’t change the scansion at all. But why use “centrifugal”, Faith? It’s all in the details.
If “This Kiss” sounds like a lip lock, “Cry” is a crime against humanity. It’s a song whose sole purpose is to conjure and then collect man-tears (“pretend that you’re feeling a little more pain”). You know, Natalie Portman, Zach Braff, and a dixie cup. But listen to the bland double-triple-tracked vocals and you’ll wonder how anyone gets any emotional response from such corporate glycerin at all. Sisters, you’d get realer tears by giving dudes a snicker snag, or maybe trying to bend their pinky finger all the way back.
Although I’m not impervious to the very real charms of “The Secret of Life” (barroom philosophy, featuring Keats’s negative capability plus the Stones!) or “Mississippi Girl” (one foot in the birthplace), it’s the odious “Breathe” that always makes me slam the brakes on this ride. “Breathe” is allegedly a popular wedding song now, which I bet means lots of wedding planners need to order barf bags along with flower arrangements. Seriously, in this irritating ballad, you get a heart waking up, some walls tumbling down, a “slow and steady rush”, and of course, the respiration, which provide the song’s title. And which may or may not refer to snoring. Journey was much better at this sort of thing.
I can’t recommend The Hits. I want to say caveat emptor, but I’m really not sure which buyers really need to beware. Fans already own most of this, and they probably taped “Red Umbrella” off the Ellen DeGeneres Show. But if you’re not a fan, if you’re just interested in connecting with a rapidly receding 1990s zeitgeist, or if you’re a co-dependent breeder and these songs actually speak to you, I suppose you might totally dig it.
I said “might”.