They may have been a little lost in the glare that surrounded Gretchen Wilson’s starburst success, but the two best country singles of 2004 were Rachel Proctor’s “Me and Emily” and Julie “Not Julia” Roberts’ “Break Down Here”. Despite the quality of her debut album, the splendid Proctor seems to have been consigned to the relative obscurity of MySpace. “Not Julia,” however, is showing every sign of going the distance.
Roberts’ own eponymous debut was a thing of understated beauty. Shunning the high-sheen pop productions her pin-up looks seemed to demand, the singer from South Carolina walked the thin line between blues and country and made it look both easy and fun, if not always essential. Men and Mascara takes off where Julie Roberts left off.
Introduced by a relaxed guitar twang, “Paint and Pillows” is both an extended metaphor and the sad, simple story of a woman betrayed in the home she built with her partner. It was written by Casey Kessel, who does a mean version of her own song, but it’s given both legs and wings by Roberts who invests Kessel’s words with a simple dignified soul that most interpretative singers can only hope to achieve.
I ain’t 19
I ain’t naive
That ain’t the way I make my bed
I can’t believe
You’re telling me
This all can be repaired
It’s gonna take more
Than paint and pillows,
New curtains on these windows,
To cover up all the trash that you drug in
There ain’t a rug big enough…
“Paint And Pillows” is all about pain, closure, and home furnishings. It’s a song and a performance that sets a high standard for the album that follows. And while not every subsequent song is as perfectly judged or arranged, Men and Mascara works hard to maintain the mood and to live up to the promises this outstanding opener makes.
“Smile” is a slow, humid, country wail underpinned by a plaintive fiddle. “Too Damned Young” is the second Casey Kessel song to show up here. It’s a ruefully mid-paced tale of young love and lost innocence: “He kissed me like it meant forever, and we were too damned young to know any better”.
And then, with perfect sequencing, the title track details a moment in the life of an older woman who ain’t getting any younger. Waking to find herself alone the morning after the night before, she picks up the empty wine bottle from the floor by the bed and makes her way gingerly to the bathroom. Looking at herself in the mirror, “With little black rivers running down her face,” she concludes that “Men and mascara always run,” and promises herself that tomorrow is another day.
As least as good as “Paint and Pillows”, “Men and Mascara” is a close cousin to the standout track from Roberts’ debut, “Wake up Older”, and couples a simple, unobtrusive arrangement with a signature vocal performance from Roberts. It’s a song that would sit comfortably alongside the bulk of Lee Ann Womack’s marvelous record, There’s More Where That Came From. And that is no small compliment.
Necessarily, the next song up, “First To Never Know” breaks the spell with a sledgehammer country pop hook of the type that made the Dixie Chicks a great deal of money, and then immediately tones things right back down again to tell what happened to the heroine of “Break Down Here”. Kinda. The verses look back down the road and are sung with a sadness you could cut; the chorus swells with determination and something approaching optimism.
Roberts is now officially one of my favorite singers. Rich with melody and dark with possibilities, her voice has a depth and a reach that cannot be denied. And for most of Men and Mascara, it’s complimented by material and arrangements that serve her well. Unfortunately, there are moments towards the end of this album when the fiddles, pedal steel, and open-hearted hurt begin to slip and slide dangerously into arena power ballad territory. Keyboards begin to intrude. The guitarists start aspiring to eleven. And the singer begins to strain for supremacy. None of this is a good thing, but it’s nothing that can’t be headed off at the pass in the future by a little more rigorous quality control.
Unfortunately, Roberts’s sense of quality control left the building when she decided to make a last-minute addition at the end of Men and Mascara. A bluegrass cover of Saving Jane’s big beat pop single, “Girl Next Door” reads like a clumsy Amy Dalley-Dixie Chicks crossover crossbreed. It’s not that it’s a bad song, or a bad idea (although Roberts’ phrasing could certainly use a little fine-tuning), but it’s a song that simply has no place on Men and Mascara. And as a result, an album that could’ve been outstanding becomes merely excellent.