Where do you start with Allison Moorer?
She's the acclaimed singer/songwriter type who penned an Academy Award nominee in "A Soft Place to Fall" for the soundtrack of The Horse Whisperer. Not exactly the kind of thing that earns you instant street cred but, hey, being nominated for an Oscar ain't a bad thing to have on your resume either.
She's also the attractive, red-headed kid sister of fellow country songstress Shelby Lynne. A fact that may have little bearing on Moorer's own musical trajectory, but depending on your view of contemporary popular country could leave you with the taste of skepticism in your mouth.
Yet, before you put Moorer into this neat little "cute popular country singer" box, keep this in mind: She's also put out some of the grittiest alternative country records this side of Lucinda Williams over the last several years.
So, again, where do you start with Allison Moorer? Well, when taking a look at her latest record, The Duel (her first on the Sugar Hill label), you start with the opening guitar riff on the record's first title, "I Ain't Giving Up on You". It's Neil Young's Crazy Horse channeled through the latter day, sanitized version of Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers and the homage (if you're being generous) is a little too obvious for its own good.
But then again, that's been the knock on much of the "alternative country" or "no depression" acts that have risen from the ashes of Uncle Tupelo and Big Star. They're too obvious, full of country clichés and lack the grit and honesty of a Jay Farrar or the afore-mentioned Williams. It's paint-by-the-numbers rebellion against the Nashville sound that's become so predictable someone really needs to rebel against it. No luck finding such a coup d'etat here. But let's give Moorer some credit: At least her brand comes in a nice package and is easily digested.
That's just the thing with The Duel. There's nothing sinister about it's co-opted sound in the same way, say, there is with Justin Timberlake ripping off the soul sound and riding the coattails of others into "critical acclaim". (Though by critical acclaim, to be fair, we mean the critics at Rolling Stone and People.) No one is going to confuse the songs on this album with their predecessors and no one is going to hail this record as a breakthrough in y'alternative songwriting. (Gimme some time and I'll get to all of these inane tags.)
"I Ain't Giving Up on You" is faux grit and the first verse is classic estrogen-infused alt country: "I always toss it in when things get heavy / Wash my hands and leave 'em high and dry / I've put 'em to the wind like confetti / But a lady has a right to change her mind." Such a pedestrian lament never sounded so sultry. Yet, this song about breaking down and telling the truth to save a nearly lost love is so shimmering, so produced that it sounds like the contrivance that it really is. At least folks like Darrell Scott have the good sense to sound dusty and broken like the cowboy boot and blue jean images that predominant their catalogues.
Track two, "Baby Dreamer" is a sleeper and "Melancholy Polly", is an up tempo number that sounds vaguely autobiographical ("She is not a starlet with a red guitar / Just an easy target for a broken heart / Peddling her story up there all alone / Is another allegory starved in stone") but doesn't really say much new about a life on stage ("Her life only happens for a song to sing"). "Believe You Me" is more Sheryl Crow then anyone who heard Moorer's first four studio albums ever thought she could go. Clumsy metaphors about religion and prostitution are drawn on so that Moorer can coo in the chorus line, "I want to believe in you / Believe you me."
"One on the House" is rife with bar room banalities. ("Wasted my fortune on having a ball / Hit the bottle like a calf to a cow.") Title track "The Duel" is a tired "questioning religion" piano dirge with the cringe worthy opening lines, "In this cemetery mist / Stands a newborn atheist."
The best song on the album is the shuffling and harmless "When Will You Ever Come Down", and it's got nothing to do with some grand statement on life. It's a simply constructed song about a man who's letting his disposition tear him down. But on this tightly created, overly serious production, it's like a breath of fresh air and a reminder of the talent Moorer has demonstrated on past efforts.
When 2002's Miss Fortune was released it startled many longtime fans because of its sterling production. But it still only sounded like a temporary dip in the mainstream. There were enough of those old Dusty Springfield characteristics to hint at a return to her rough hewed roots. Those same fans are likely, though, to be disappointed with The Duel. The production work by R.S. Field and The Primms has seemingly sucked what little life there was out of these songs.
Yet, it would be too convenient and, frankly, unfair to simply blame the production. These songs, like Moorer's picture in the liner notes, are all dressed up with nowhere to go. Those who thought getting an Oscar nod was going to artistically bankrupt her ought to be waxing poetic about "The Horse Whisperer".