[11 November 2009]
It is now over 20 years since Rosie Flores’s self-titled debut album arrived in the midst of the “new country” movement that spawned Randy Travis, Dwight Yoakam, Nanci Griffith, and Lyle Lovett. It was released by Warner Brothers and produced by Pete Anderson, the team behind Yoakam, but Flores did not go on to have the same commercial success as her labelmate. She subsequently moved to Hightone, with whom she released a series of albums in the 1990s that honed her aesthetic, a rollicking mixture of cow-punk, rockabilly, honky-tonk, and classic country balladry. Flores’s electric guitar skills, meanwhile, came ever more to the fore, giving an incendiary edge to her popular live shows.
Girl of the Century is Flores’s first album for the Chicago label Bloodshot, and features Bloodshot regulars the Pine Valley Cosmonauts as backing band. Her last two albums were the festive Christmasville (2005) and the live Single Rose (2004), meaning that it is now eight years since her last regular studio album, Speed of Sound. In the intervening time, she has been a regular live performer (her concerts have been acclaimed in numerous countries) and has contributed songs to a variety of country and rockabilly tribute projects. That these activities have taken precedence over recording new material shows in the rather mixed bag on offer on the new album.
Girl starts off promisingly with the catchy blues of “Chauffeur”, driven by upright bass and decorated with swinging fiddle and mandolin. Flores and the band then turn the clock back 50 years with a version of the Ruth Brown hit “This Little Girl’s Gone Rockin’”. It’s a nod to Flores’s rockabilly and R&B roots, as well as an opportunity for some electric guitar work. “Halfway Home” is one of three songs written or co-written by the album’s producer, former Mekon and current Pine Valley Cosmonaut Jon Langford. It’s another catchy song, complete with call-and-response vocals from the band. “I Ain’t Got You”, another blast from the past, is a blues that has been recorded by numerous artists, including Jimmy Reed, the Animals, and Billy Boy Arnold. Flores sticks close to Arnold’s version and uses the song as a vehicle for some more brief guitar heroics, trading whiney licks with the other musicians.
These are all good tracks, but they’re brief pleasures, gone almost as soon as they’ve arrived. You long for the band to really let go and indulge in the kind of lengthy instrumental work that some of these pieces will probably receive in live performance. Fortunately, a couple of songs do leave the clock running for a bit longer. “Dark Enough at Midnight” is five minutes of sultry, swampy blues, its soundworld not so far removed from Dr. John or Tom Waits. Deep bass and guitar strings add to the atmosphere as Flores puts on her smokiest voice to sing of “shadows and whispered conversations”. Tapped-rim percussion and barfly piano add to the dynamics, and bluesy fiddle fleshes out the details. It ends with a Flores howl and a lick of the guitar.
Following this excellent but spooky track, the clean western swing of Paul Burch’s “Little Bells” comes as a refreshing contrast. Flores then fits in another guitar-centric nod to Johnny Cash in a version of “Get Rhythm” (she has previously recorded Cash’s “Big River” and “Country Boy”) before delivering Langford’s “Last Song”, the kind of bluesy country lament that Lucinda Williams has made a specialty out of. Like Williams, Flores knows how to let a song build up slowly and simply, delivering the verses over drowsy snare and mandolin ripples before letting go at the chorus with a tear-stained drawl of a vocal and a keening pedal steel accompaniment. It’s arguably the strongest take on the album, and just about makes up for “Who’s Gonna Take Your Garbage Out?”, a Flores-Langford duet that provides further proof, following Elvis Costello’s duet with Lucinda Williams on the latter’s Little Honey, that British singers (Langford is Welsh) should really avoid this kind of country singing.
There’s one more great rocker on the album, “This Cat’s in the Doghouse”, but again the potential for a blistering Flores guitar workout is curtailed by the song’s brief running time. Flores may be showing her fidelity to her ‘50s and ‘60s forebears by sticking to the under-three-minute rule on these numbers, but it’s an aesthetic that doesn’t fit so well with album-length projects. As if to make up for this, Flores closes the album with “Girl of the Century”, the title and imagery of which were inspired by the artist Tony Fitzpatrick (famous among country music fans for the covers he has painted for Steve Earle’s albums). Flores adds gravity to the title track by speaking the first lines before adding one of her clearest and most youthful vocals to the refrain. The girlish innocence here, augmented by slowly-bowed, full-toned fiddle, is in stark contrast to the worldwise vocal and instrumental persona commonly adopted by Flores, and the result is incredibly moving. The listener is left in the silence that follows with a sense of yearning quite at odds with the summons to rock ‘n’ roll delivered by most of the album.
With Girl of the Century, Flores has added a few valuable numbers to her discography and a bunch of sassy standards that suggest once again that she will ultimately be happiest strapping on an electric guitar and rocking out on a stage.