Three years after Walking Away A Winner returned Kathy Mattea to the upper reaches of the charts, she returned with Love Travels, an eleven-song collection that saw her return to exploring her Celtic roots, while still trying to have hits at radio.
The most successful of the album’s singles was “455 Rocket,” a Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings composition featuring a decidedly pop-country arrangement indicative of the era. A CMA Video of the Year Winner, the song peaked at #21 in the states but fared better in Canada where it peaked at #16. I’ve always liked the song, and was surprised to learn Americana darlings Welch and Rawlings wrote it, but would not rank it among Mattea’s most impactful material. I quite like “I’m On Your Side,” the non-charting second single because of its infectious attitude, and upbeat persona.
The #36 peaking title track, a fabulous Celtic-inspired mid-tempo ballad, was the final single and shows the disconnect between Mattea and country radio. Mattea has always been a bit too smart for her own good, and while that makes for fantastic music, it keeps radio somewhat at bay. It’s too bad, too, because Love Travels contains some of the best music of her commercial days. Lionel Cartwright’s “If That’s What You Call Love” is an excellent somewhat pop flavored ballad Mattea wears beautifully. It’s one of my favorite tracks on the album, and I love how the bed of steel guitar frames her delicate vocal.
Jim Pitman and Tom Kimmel’s Gospel flavored “The Bridge” is somewhat jittery in execution, but Mattea pulls it off with ease. While she does a great job with the song, I can only help but wonder how Wynonna Judd, a far better gospel-tinged vocalist, would blow the song out of the water. Another standout is Welch’s sonically brilliant “Patiently Waiting,” a groovy acoustic guitar led number that works because of Mattea’s confident vocal, the missing element from “The Bridge.” Recalling her mesmerizing “Knee Deep in A River,” “Sending Me Angels” shows she’s grown as a vocalist in the preceding five years and works wonders thanks to Mattea’s throaty vocal and use of steel as a framing technique. Cheryl Wheeler’s “Further and Further Away” finds Mattea tackling an airy vocal on a mid-tempo ballad that would’ve been stronger had the tempo been increased just a little. As it is, the track is too slow to be fully effective, but the combination of Mattea and Wheeler’s voices saves the song from being a complete washout.
The most powerful track on the album is the closer “Beautiful Fool” written by Don Henry. The song is a tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr, a remembrance of the American legend often forgotten by most people. Like her seminal classic “Where’ve You Been” (which Henry co-wrote), “Beautiful Fool” relays its powerful message in an understated manner, down to the acoustic arrangement. Janis Ian, of “At 17” fame, and Mattea’s husband Jon Vezner wrote “All Roads To The River,” another Gospel inspired tune that ranks among my least favorite on the album because it takes Mattea too far out of her country sensibilities. While I’m all for singers trying something new, the way she has to stretch her voice on this song doesn’t work for me. “At The End of the Line” is a first-rate pop song and Mattea delivers a first-rate pop vocal. Unlike “All Roads to the River” she sounds natural and finds a nice groove with the tempo. It may not be the most country of all the tracks, but it still works.
Overall, Love Travels is a very strong album from one of country’s premier vocalists. It may have been the final release during her radio years, but it came at a time when her fellow contemporaries Patty Loveless, Suzy Bogguss, and Pam Tillis also saw their fortunes dissipate. It’s not surprising as smart intelligent country music has a short life in mainstream culture. But that doesn’t make Love Travels any less of a fine album and one worthy of a listen
Grade: A -