Kathy Mattea isn’t exactly the flavor of the month in country music anymore. This has nothing to do with her voice, or her visual appeal either — she fits the suit just fine, she just refuses to wear it. She is now more of a folk singer than anything else, as this disc (on noted world/folk music label Narada) proves.
There are a couple ways to look at this. Either she began to walk away from the Big Shiny Machine in a search for what really matters, or she saw the writing on the wall and decided to change her spots. Doesn’t matter to me, really, but there it is. Some people don’t like this kind of move; they think that country music has to signify hardcore, sound like the coolest hippest latest thing, etc. But, y’know, whatever. I choose to judge on an album-by-album basis.
And I like this album. Mattea’s voice has changed, broadened, gained depth — it will never shatter any glasses but it has soothed a lot of souls. She sounds soulful when she does the blues, sounds sincere on the prettier numbers, and just generally warm and fuzzy all around. Her songs here suit her voice, and her voice suits her songs, and all is well with the world.
Part of the reason for this is that she is writing just about all of the songs here. The press release that came with the disc talks about how this was a difficult year in her life, with family illnesses and deaths, the almost-dissolution of her marriage, and general ennui with the crappy U.S./world situation — I guess that comes through, but one does not listen to a press release, and it’s not like this is a concept album. Still, the material turns kind of dark-ish on “I Hope You’re Happy Now” and “Loving You Letting You Go”, lightens up on “Love’s Not Through With You Yet” and “Give It Away”, a gamut is being run nicely.
Is it earthshaking? Well, no. This is not a rabble-rousing crowd-pleasing parade, but rather a letter to a friend, or a whole lot of friends called fans. When “Live It” starts to chug along with its train beat and its hobo harmonica and its “Everybody’s Talkin'” guitar and its messages of hope, it won’t necessarily leap off the radio to inspire the common people… but on headphones, on a Sunday morning, with good coffee and nothing to do, it sure sounds like a slice of Zen wisdom.
I’m loving the way Mattea tears it up on “Hurt Some” — it takes a lot of guts to sing a blues song now that everyone hates the blues, and she takes it on right lovely. “Loving You Letting You Go” has a nice ripoff of “Heart of Gold” and turns all sweet powerballad with some nice turns and twists in the verses. And her slinky version of gospel standard “Wade in the Water” is way more sexy than you’d think Mattea could pull off. WAY more sexy, yo.
And, speaking of sexy, she’s got a couple of other cover versions here that will knock you out. When she turns the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” into a personal hootenanny, you understand a little bit how she feels about the world today: shitty, but not unhopeful, but not overconfident, but not down, but not up. Y’know, like every smart person feels these days. And, lest you think she’s a boring no-fun nerd, she funks it up a little bit with a (less-successful) cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Down on the Corner”.
Sadly, all this credibility and attunement to human suffering and sensitivity lead to this album sometimes flirting with turning a little, um, boring. “Only Heaven Knows” might have been a big lite-FM hit in the 1970s or the 1980s, but sounds kind of “eh” now with its talk of sailing away on “the ocean of forgiveness” and some gently chiming guitars and tinkling piano. (Hint: No One Likes Peter Cetera’s Sappy Songs Anymore.) The opener, “Right Out of Nowhere”, packs a hell of a narrative and a pretty melodic line and a lot of open-hearted ache into a too-drab suitcase.
But this is all forgivable, sez me, because Kathy Mattea is making me feel better in this shitty world. It’s a good record, it’s a clean record, it’s a pretty record. She doesn’t want to set the world on fire, because it’s already burning. Who could blame her for wanting to extinguish the flames?