Kendel Carson: Rearview Mirror Tears

Lester Feder

A singer this good doesn't have to try so hard.

Kendel Carson

Rearview Mirror Tears

Label: Train Wreck
US Release Date: 2007-04-03
UK Release Date: 2007-06-11

Kendel Carson and her producer, Chip Taylor, make a great deal out of the excited frenzy that produced this album. Taylor, a veteran musician and songwriter (who's perhaps most famous for writing "Angel of the Morning") invited the 22 year-old Canadian singer/fiddler to join him in New York City to write some songs and cut some demos. But when they got in the studio, they decided they had material solid enough for an album, which Taylor released on his new Train Wreck Records label. In fact, their exuberance was too much for one disc. They recorded two more tracks after the album was finished, releasing them on a bonus CD accompanying the original 11 tracks.

These songs have much going for them. Carson has a lovely voice, both Pinot Grigio and Chardonnay: the vulnerability of an Alison Krauss but with a full bodiedness of Martina McBride. And the album's arrangements show it off to good effect. Where a Nashville hit-factory would have pasteurized it and crowded it with sterile arrangements, Chip Taylor allows Carson the space in which her voice can reach full bloom. While they draw on John Platania's electric guitar, Tony Mercadante's bass, Dan Reiser's drums, Seth Farber's keyboards, and Carson's own fiddling, these minimalist arrangements can be as spare as Taylor on acoustic guitar and Carrie Rodriguez's harmony singing.

As Carson's voice commands center stage in this casual setting, the words she sings draw extra attention. And that is where I find myself wishing Carson and Taylor had taken more time before they went into the studio. Mostly written by Taylor (at least according to the credits), they seriously miss the mark. Taylor rightly aims for a straightforwardness that complements Carson's delivery, but he seems to be trying too hard. The words come off as artificial rather than artless, simplistic rather than simple. And the good music that accompanies them suffers for their failings.

The opening track, for example, is almost unlistenable -- even embarrassing -- leaving a sour taste in my mouth that lingers for the rest of the album. Carson carefully enunciates her dialect in the chorus:

Take this thang and run with it.

Take this thang and run with it.

Take this thang and run with it.

Run till the middle of the mornin'.

"Take this thang and run with it"? Give me a break. (Oops, I mean, "Gimme a break.") This faux-downhome barn dance tune is alt-country hipsterism gone wrong, seemingly mocking the music that inspired it.

"Take Me Down to the River" would be captivating and languorous if the lyrics it lingered on weren't lame. With Taylor singing harmony, Carson sings:

Take me down to the river

Down to the river

Take me down

Then Carson sings alone, as if to highlight that she's speaking from the heart:

I wanna go down there

I wanna go down

At the bridge, Taylor turns the song into a disordered, psychedelic Christmas carol with a puzzling color scheme:

Baby, not for nothin'

I know your eyes are touchin' somethin'

We got 5 white boys a strumming

10 black drummers drumming

7 soul sisters humming

I wanna go down

(Oh, in case you're wondering, Taylor's pronunciation guidelines are also spelled out in the liner notes so that you don't mistake "wanna" for "want to." I wonder why eyes are "touchin' somethin'" but the white boys, black drummers, and soul sisters are "strumming", "drumming", and "humming.")

Despite the unfortunate strained authenticity that mars so many of the album's songs, Taylor's straightforward lyrics occasionally pay off. Once I stopped holding track 2, "I Like Trucks," responsible for the hokiness of track 1, "Run Till the Middle of the Mornin'", I discovered it was a charming cousin to Gretchen Wilson's "Redneck Woman":

I like trucks -- big trucks

I like cars -- that go fast

I like boys -- that talk trash

and take it as it comes.

I like the sun when it goes down

And six bartenders in this cool town

And if sometimes all that sucks

I still like trucks -- big trucks

Taylor's lyrics seem to be at their best when spiced up with mild cursing. "I Certainly Know Why" is a wonderful tell-off song, one that I certainly know would have come in handy during some of my break-ups:

I certainly know why

know why, I know I feel blue

and I certainly know why

know why that's true

And I certainly know why

I cry like I do

'Cause I'm so pissed off at you

I guess you never learned the rules to this game

But you should be taking a class

Because rule number one is when you find something good

and you throw it away you're an ass

But Taylor steps on these songs' charm by mixing in contrived crowd noise that makes them sound insincere. It's unclear whether they were actually recorded in a bar, but the bar noises and shouts of encouragement sound faked. Lord knows why they felt the need to do this -- perhaps they feared the songs would not stand up on their own.

If so, those fears should be put to rest by Carson's performances on Rearview Mirror Tears. Kendel Carson is a talented musician who doesn't need to force it. Fortunately, the album's biggest flaws are the songs, and I'm sure good material will flow to her.

At every turn, Rearview Mirror Tears overpackages Carson and gets in the way of her genuine appeal. That goes for the actual packaging, too -- this debut album comes in a meticulously designed three-fold jewel case complete with bonus CD, only a notch below the most recent Dixie Chicks release. She got talent -- she doesn't need the hype.

Fortunately, Carson is only 22 years old, only beginning to discover what kind of musician she wants to be. Despite its flaws, Rearview Mirror Tears makes clear that good things will almost certainly come from Kendel Carson. I'm looking forward to her next album.




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