When LeAnn Rimes made her impressive debut aged just 13, she did so with a vintage song originally written for Patsy Cline. Her career subsequently veered popwards, with LeAnn often not seeming to be certain of her own musical identity. Most recently she has been producing solid pop-country, but her chart career has been overshadowed by a tangled personal life. So I was intrigued to hear that she might be returning to country classics – at least, until I heard the first single. I hated LeAnn’s manically speeded up and overwrought version of John Anderson’s hit ‘Swingin’, and was left gloomy about the album’s likely direction, despite Vince Gill being named as the producer. (He is in fact joined in that task on the bulk of the record by Justin Niebank, Darrell Brown (LeAnn’s regular co-writer) and John Hobbs, with Gill, Brown and Leann responsible for the arrangements). Happily, the end result is much better than I feared it might be, with the awful, misconceived assault on ‘Swingin’ the only track I really dislike.
There are a couple of other tracks which don’t quite work for me: a horn-accompanied and passionately sung ‘16 Tons’ sounds great if you don’t listen to the words, but is completely unconvincing as a working man’s anthem. Her reworking of producer Vince’s great ‘When I Call Your Name’ as a jazz-soul song wanders too far from the original melody and emotion for me, but is very accomplished in its way and will appeal to some.
Freddy Fender’s Tex-Mex ‘Wasted Days And Wasted Nights’ in contrast has a lovely retro, slightly loungy feel, with lovely phrasing and a small section sung in Spanish. I also enjoyed a new, mature version of her own first hit ‘Blue’, featuring Vince Gill’s side band the Time Jumpers. I enjoyed LeAnn’s enthusiastic take on Waylon’s ‘The Only Daddy That’ll Walk The Line’, given a gender rewrite as ‘The Only Mama That’ll Walk The Line’. The Waylon/Willie hit ‘A Good Hearted Woman’ is speeded up a bit too much, but still quite enjoyable, expressed in the first person. John Conlee’s ‘Rose Colored Glasses’ is well sung but lacks the intensity of emotion of the original, although the production is more tasteful.
There are three outstanding tracks. While she cannot quite match George Jones on the hallowed ground of ‘He Stopped Loving her Today’, she gives a beautifully understated reading which works extremely well, with Vince adding harmony on the chorus. This is the one which best reveals LeAnn’s growth as an interpreter. A measured, emotional version of Haggard’s depiction of being trapped in an unhappy marriage where ‘I Can’t Be Myself’ is superb. LeAnn’s seductive and emotional plea to ‘Help Me Make It Through the Night’ is almost as good.
Haggard’s ‘The Bottle Let Me Down’ (one of three afterthoughts produced by LeAnn with Darrell Brown) was a good addition to the tracklist. On first hearing I thought it paled in comparison to both the original and Emmylou Harris’s defiant cover, but over repeated listens, I have grown to appreciate the sense of defeat and regret in LeAnn’s version.
The other two are brand new songs, which have both been tried, and failed, as radio singles. They are out of place here, sounding much more contemporary, and they contradict the original conceit of the album, the idea that these were all “men’s songs” given a new interpretation by LeAnn. The aggressive Miranda Lambert style gender war of ‘Crazy Women’, written by Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally and Jessie Jo Dillon suffers from a cluttered modern production and rather limited melody, while the gentler but still contemporary ‘Give’, written by Jimmy Yeary and Connie Harrington has a well meaning message and is pleasant sounding but a little dull.
Interestingly, this is one of very few modern albums to get a vinyl release alongside CD and digital availability. Sales so far are reportedly low, which is a shame, because this is LeAnn’s best work for some time, and for me it fulfils for the first time the potential she had as a phenomenal teenager. Her vocals are great, and her sometimes muddy diction has also improved.