From the time that Sheryl Crow’s 1993 debut album, Tuesday Night Music Club, was three singles old, it was clear that Crow had legs. Well, yes, those kind, too, but I was referring to longevity, of the old-fashioned rock star variety. With her blend of sunshiny-soul and Stonesy roots rock, the Flurry from Missouri became one of modern rock’s most reliable figures in an otherwise dying breed of heartland hitmakers.
Moreover, in restyling classic roots rock to fit her breezy songwriting style and her singing voice — she possesses one of the most laid-back vocal deliveries in rock — Crow crystalized one of the definitive sounds of the late ’90s and early ’00s. By sticking close to the revered accessibility of classic forms and building her own impressive songwriting credentials, Crow is the kind of artist who did enough in the early going to attain lifelong status as an artist whom hall-of-fame boards love to lionize.
It is, then, a time of interesting choices for Crow, a singer-songwriter who seems to have moved past her hit-singles heyday (2008’s Detours was a commercial letdown despite being one of her most compelling records) before her rock legend card has been activated. After all, she has too much integrity to Auto-Tune her way into the Top 40, a chart that is no longer a friend to rockers of a certain age.
Still, it’s nice to be able to headline amphitheaters, and her label continues to count on her to be a big-name mover. Her best play for the top of any chart, of course, would be to pull a Jewel and go full-blown country. Yet something about Sheryl Crow’s guitar straps always told us that she was going to be a rock-and-roll lifer. On the new 100 Miles From Memphis, which refers to the location of Crow’s childhood small town in the Missouri bootheel, Crow dishes out her biggest old-school statement yet: a tribute to the Stax and Hi record labels’ brand of ’60s and ’70s southern soul.
What makes 100 Years, Crow’s seventh album of originals, intriguing is how cathartic all of the soul grooves and slinky funkiness feels coming from Crow, whose private challenges and triumphs — a broken engagement to Lance Armstrong, a battle with cancer, a single-mom adoption — piled up fast and were the focus of much of the material on Detours. Getting past that confessional album, Crow sounds ready to get down on it, shimmying through twelve tunes that recall the glory years of Memphis soul.
Producers Doyle Bramhall II and Justin Stanley, along with Crow, give the record, despite its sonically imposing thesis, an easy vibe throughout, in tempos, busy-but-loose arrangements, and Crow’s chill-pill vocals. Opener “My Love Is Fading” announces Crow’s intentions straightaway and for an eventually numbing six-and-a-half minutes. It’s one of the record’s stumbling points — each song feels too long as the twelve tunes stretch out over an hour. Running length wouldn’t be a problem in and of itself, but Crow is, first and foremost, a singer and songwriter, and these extended grooves, as deliciously played as they are, are too often asked to make up for songs that don’t always stand up to Crow’s all-time best.
On the surface, it feels as though Crow has fashioned a record for the Bud Light Lime set, a little reggae here (“Eye to Eye”, apparently featuring Keith Richards on guitar in there somewhere) and a strummy beach-gospel tune there (“Long Road Home”, a song that alludes to both Al Green and Sly Stone, not that you’d miss those influences on your own). Lyrically, however, Crow proves that she’s brought the same foxy knack for detail and humor that has always been her difference maker, whether she’s talking about sex (the sultry O’Jays-esque “Roses and Moonlight”) or about what a dipshit Sarah Palin is (the Sly and the Family Stone ringer “Say What You Want”).
Elsewhere, lead single “Summer Day” is a slice of neo-soul in the Corinne Bailey Rae mode. “Peaceful Feeling” is the uplifting tambourine tune, a sun-kissed, optimistic pop number that sounds like something the Brady Bunch would have sung. Deep in the album are a couple of ballads, “Sideways” (a duet with Citizen Cope) and “Stop”, both of which threaten to break the record’s cohesive structure, but don’t quite — there’s a simmering beauty to these heartbreakers, along with a restraint in the playing and especially in Crow’s oddly pulled-back vocals, that keep them from descending into overcooked R&B.
The record also contains a couple of covers. She resurrects Terence Trent d’Arby’s great ’80s hit, “Sign Your Name”, embellished with goopy layers of Justin Timberlake’s whispery falsetto; he’s relegated to the Joey Fatone backround role, so his presence ends up feeling squandered. Plus, this version is slower than d’Arby’s, robbing the song of much of its original snap. Looked good on paper, though. The other cover is stunning, Sheryl’s bonus-track tribute to her former employer, Michael Jackson — she was his backup singer and duet partner on the Bad tour after all, and this album is the perfect opportunity for Sheryl to pay her respects. She does so with “I Want You Back”, the damnedest Young Michael impression you’ll ever hear. Like the rest of the album, there is no pop irony here, just full-on love, capping an album that finds Crow branching out vigorously, even if it’s by getting seriously vintage. And she still has impressive legs.