The photographs of country star Lee Ann Womack decorating the album cover and inner sleeve of her latest release, Something Worth Leaving Behind, are obviously both taken at approximately the same time, if not during the very same shoot. What's interesting about them, however, is the startling difference between "cover Lee Ann" and "sleeve Lee Ann".
On the album cover, Lee Ann is dressed in the currently fashionable hippie style in a white top with lush bell sleeves and sloping neckline; her blonde hair is big, teased and flowing, and face is perfectly made up. She looks beautiful, fresh and ultra-contemporary. Inside Lee Ann looks almost entirely different, closer to that of a Marilyn Chambers-type 70s film star -- a Bond girl, perhaps. She's exchanged her Renaissance garb for a black tank and beads; her hair is a lot softer and a hell of a lot more flattering, and her cat's eye make up and stoic stare give the singer a tough-girl quality rarely exhibited.
This juxtaposition of images -- perhaps unintentionally -- lays the groundwork for the material contained on the album, which is an interesting mix of contemporary and traditional country. There are songs for the fans of the well-known "cover" Lee Ann -- the title track, "Forever Everyday" and "You Should've Lied" among them -- and songs representative of this new, more bad-ass "sleeve" model.
It's these badass tracks that give this album its punch. Though Lee Ann can't really take the credit for her new sound having written none of the album's songs, she certainly deserves credit for refusing to stick to the basics, allowing herself to have a bit of fun, while remaining true to her roots.
Lee Ann has chosen three amazing songs in order to do this, by country music writers Julie Miller, Karyn Rochelle and Sally Barris and Bruce Robison. Immediately noticeable on these tracks -- "I Need You", "Surrender", and "Blame it on Me" -- is how far removed they are from Lee Ann's previous work.
Miller's "I Need You" is a song filled with realistic emotion beyond the often world-weary, self-pitying or ultra-romantic sentimentality of the music coming from many of today's female country performers. "I need something like morphine / I need something like amnesia / For the things I know / I need something like a tattoo / Underneath my skin", Lee Ann sings, attempting to find that perfect equivalent to the man she can't quite snare.
Miller's obvious grip on contemporary language and ideals and her willingness also to stray from traditional country norms gives Lee Ann the chance to really explode vocally, pouring her energetic soprano into the song tearing it apart from the inside, her concentration and compassion shining through on every word.
With "Suddenly", Barris and Rochelle lead Lee Ann down the pop path, and though the song is almost entirely devoid of country flavor, it remains tight, smart and Lee Ann again demonstrates her ability to cross genres and do it well with the right material.
The album's highlight, though, is Robison's "Blame It on Me". In the song, Lee Ann surrenders to her own inadequacies in a relationship, and acknowledges her unhappy partner's feelings of ill will towards her with dignity and acute self-awareness. The song is truly a gorgeous country tune, and stands out not because of any changes Lee Ann makes vocally or stylistically, but thematically as it explores new ground in country girl power.
Though the remaining songs on Something Worth Leaving Behind stick solidly to country music conventions, Lee Ann still works her magic on them producing a lot of quality songs (particularly "Talk to Me" and Miller's "Orphan Train") mixed in with a little bit of expected cheese ("Closing this Memory Down"). On the whole, though, the album is a lot of fun, being a definite progression for this woman who shifts easily between the modern and the traditional, the down home, and the rough and tumble.