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Mandy Barnett Brings Out Her Inner Torch Singer on 'Strange Conversation'

Photo: Cyndi Hornsby

With unadulterated vocal talent, Mandy Barnett flawlessly melds emotion, seduction, and vibrancy to create an inspired take on a classic country songbook on Strange Conversation.

Strange Conversation
Mandy Barnett

Dame Productions / Thirty Tigers

17 August 2018

It's been five years since country music artist Mandy Barnett released new music. Audiences last heard from Barnett when she played the title role in the stage production of Always… Patsy Cline or listened to her 2013 tribute LP to singer-songwriter Don Gibson. Barnett, gained notoriety in the mid-'90s when she sprang onto the Americana-country charts with her single "Now That's Alright With Me". From there she developed a reputation for using her vocal range to endow country music with power and creativity. Barnett ends her musical hiatus with the release of Strange Conversation, a collaborative endeavor between Dame Productions and Thirty Tigers. Recorded in the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, Barnett's newest release is a slight departure from her repertoire as it breaks from traditional country conventions. Strange Conversation reflects Barnett's self-identification as a torch singer, or someone who has mastered several musical skills. The album flits and flirts with an array of genres spanning from the blues, pop, Motown and, of course, country but constantly returns to one defining feature: Barnett's stunning voice.

Barnett clearly uses Strange Conversation to explore genres. The album opens with bewitchingly bluesy "More Lovin'", originally recorded by Mable John, the first female artist signed by Berry Gordy to his Motown subsidiary, Tamla. Barnett maintains the song as a bluesy love song but adds her twangy yet sensual vocals that are underscored by Arnold McCuller, longtime backup singer for James Taylor. Doug Lancio's guitar and Tom West's organ evoke a retro country vibe. The cover's tempo is significantly slower thereby establishing an overt sultriness. Especially when she follows the repetition of 'more lovin'" with the lyrics "I want some arm turnin' toe curlin' lovin'" it becomes apparent the song is not a plaintive cry for puppy-love.

Barnett's cover of "More Lovin'" is not her only reiteration of 1960s' blues and R&B. The subsequent "It's All Right (Just in Love)" is a cover of the Tam's single. Here she adds a distinct country energy to the melodic doo-wop. Likewise, the rendition of Sonny and Cher's "A Cowboy's Work Is Never Done" is resounding. Barnett removes the original's full orchestra that created a distinct Eastern European sound. She instead includes tack piano and a robust brass section that establishes an axiomatic counterpoint between the light and heavy music. This contradiction is revisited by Barnett's smooth vocals extenuated by the raspiness of John Hiatt featured as the guest vocalist.

"Dream Too Real to Hold" features Barnett's vocals radiating in their simplicity. She utilizes unadorned vocals that give the song a sense of rawness. Especially when the music fades out and the focus is shifted to her singing the lyrics "I know that you've been hurt for I can hear your silent cries / Calling from the darkness and the cold". This enshrouds the track with a sense of sentimentality and tenderness. These unembellished vocal stylings are revisited on the title track and the inviting "The Fool".

As with classic country, Strange Conversation is dominated by the music industry's male figures. In addition to the previously mentioned artists, Barnett includes covers of Lee Hazlewood, Neil Sedaka, and Andre Williams. This is an undeniable reflection of old-school country's mirror of patriarchal society. Certainly, country music has seen a radical change but it's not apparent in Strange Conversation. Barnett includes two exceptions, "All Night" by Leslie 'Sam' Phillips and Kathleen Brennan's "Puttin' on the Dog" made famous by Tom Waits. The inclusion of these two tracks demonstrates women's contribution to the country genre while also succumbing to tokenism. It is without a doubt that women have contributed and developed country music despite the patriarchal expectations focused on male performers and songwriters. Knowingly, this isn't only country music's problem. By incorporating Phillips and Brennan's work, Barnett claims that women, including herself, are also relevant country musicians. Yet it seems perfunctory to only include two women among the male-dominated songwriting.

People don't run out to get albums anymore, but if they did, that would be my recommendation for Strange Conversation. Instead, click furiously until Barnett is part of your playlists. With unadulterated vocal talent, Barnett flawlessly melds emotion, seduction, and vibrancy to create an inspired take on a classic country songbook.

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