Rose's new album is technically beautiful, historically minded, smartly constructed, and slightly dull.
Thinking about Whitney Rose’s new album, is a pretty good road map of what the country culture is doing these days. I was talking to a musician friend about the state of country music. I spend a lot more time talking about the nature of the industry than the actual music these days-; he noted this, and he also noted that a lot of country writing was about sociology. Less and less is about the actual call to music itself. But if we spend so much time talking about the music, we might slide into the mire of authenticity conversations.
Speaking of the mire of authenticity conversations, I have another friend who just came back from LA, and he saw a band there that we both like. I asked him how the show was. and he talked about the pleasures of a small room, but also that the show was tasteful. That is a useful critical word, maybe more useful than inert. Maybe tasteful isn’t bad, there are things that are tasteful that are beautiful or refined or well worth keeping around. The priority of messiness means that things that are cleaner often get thrown out.
That’s a lot of "meta" writing around a text instead of writing about a text, and it’s the kind of thing that critics should be more careful about. However, I have heard this album for a while now, and I have heard it more than a few times. I like the producer, Raul Malo, who is working as part of the Mavericks, which are fun and refined. He knows how to hire the right people too -- the Mexican horns in a Mavericks show are so tight, they are brassy in all the best ways. The band swings, but they don’t improvise. It’s a good time had by all, and they play against an audience, but you can only swing that hard: reproduce the studio live, by just being really fucking good at your instruments.
Like those horns in the Mavericks, which sound like "Ring of Fire", or sound like West Texas Bohemian polkas and waltzes -- hinting at the overlap that gave birth to a variety of regional musics. Rose doesn’t do much hinting. I keep trying to figure out how to listen to this record, and I keep coming up against wanting to write against it, or through it. I find it tasteful and inert.
Malo heard something when Rose opened for him, and hearing him on the first track, you know what he heard. She has a voice well suited for the middle space between Jazz and Country: she swings, like how Walking After Midnight might as well be a Dinah Washington torch song. She also knows her history. Part of knowing the history, is the ability to integrate and reconstruct, to renew the tradition. Rockabilly, with it’s obsession with nostalgia, is closer to jazz, in how it has standards that renew through covering. But rockabilly can sometimes seem ossified, that the musical work does not shift or change, and it becomes a kind of liturgical performance.
When Rose sings "Be My Baby", she has every note right. McFadden’s organ rolls, and the drum provides a perfect heartbeat. She sounds fairly close to Ronnie Spector, in ways that suggest listening more than a direct Xeroxing. Her cover of the Hank Williams standard "Tear in my Beer" is genuinely beautiful, and very sad. But it lacks the ironic self loathing of the original. Ronnie Spector needs the performative bucking against Phil’s iron thumb, and Hank Williams needs to laugh at himself, I’m not sure Rose has either.
But, maybe I am being a little churlish. I am interested in her choices, and in how she sings. Her writing is first rate, and she is really fucking good at her instrument. She doesn’t embarrass herself next to the covers she chose, and her writing is as good as other Canadians doing similar historically minded work on the edge of what country could be. This album is not that different than Corb Lund or Lindi Ortega. There is no reason why I should want this over as soon as it begins, or why listening to it becomes either a chore, or washes over you. However, it does.