My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

Album Review – Pam Tillis – ‘Thunder & Roses’

35224855The most significant musical moment of Pam Tillis’ 2001 Thunder & Roses is “Waiting In The Wind,” which marks the first time in the span of six studio albums that she properly duets with her father Mel. The track, about a dad’s reaction to his daughter leaving the nest, conveys the emotion perfectly, but is bogged down by a poppish string section and phrases like ‘rise to every challenge’ and ‘catch your dreams’ that are generic and overwrought.

With Thunder & Roses Tillis also returns to the multi-producer format and forgoes a producing credit of her own for the first time since Homeward Looking Angel. The production change stems from the disappointing commercial success of Every Time, which yielded one top 15 hit in two singles. The move towards a more mainstream sound didn’t reverse Tillis’ dwindling relationship with country radio, but she gained her final chart hit in the leadoff single.

“Please,” written by John Hobbs, Michael Dulaney, and Jeffery Steele tells the story of an anxious single mother getting ready for a date hoping he’ll “be the dad, the friend, the man” and cherish her for “who I am.” Tillis, a twice married single mother herself, brings her own life experiences to her brilliant vocal, half talking, half singing at just the right moments to perfectly articulate the woman’s own doubts and fears. The title track, a pop/country confection, was the first single of Tillis’ career that failed to chart.

The album itself leans in a more mainstream direction, forgoing the fiddle, steel, and dobro flourishes that peppered Tillis’ music until this point. The move is an answer to the trends that were popular at country radio in the early 2000s, but the pandering didn’t reignite Tillis’ career. At the time I’d chalked it up to behavior – Tillis seemed to be acting kind of weird (I remember when she presented Brooks & Dunn with a Vocal Duo CMA award as though the other four acts in the category didn’t exist) and the music followed suit.

Songs like “Space” and “Be A Man” just don’t fit Tillis’ musical persona. She almost seems uncomfortable vocally, with breathy phrasing that go against the way she usually sings. There’s nothing innately wrong with “I Smile” lyrically, but the in-your-face production swallows any attempts at subtly in Tillis’ voice. Same goes for “If I Didn’t Love You,” which is bombast turned up to eleven. Brett James and Troy Verges’ “Tryin’” is a lot better, but I could do without the unnecessary background singers that clutter up the track with unnecessary noise.

The album isn’t a dud by any means as Tillis thankfully saves the day with some quality tracks thrown in to balance out the more sonically progressive numbers. Though the song would’ve been stellar with a far more traditional arrangement, “It Isn’t Just Raining” works because of Tillis’ confident voice throughout. Even better is “Which Five Years,” a Craig Wiseman and Lisa Drew composition about a woman’s insecurities towards growing older in which she wonders “So which five years would I lose/Which lessons would I choose to have to learn again/I wonder/Just to seem a little younger?” I also adore Stephanie Bentley and Chris Lindsey’s “Jagged Hearts,” a wonderful torch ballad and Tillis’ shinning moment.

Thunder & Roses is Tillis’ Strong Heart – an attempt at going mainstream that lessens the traditional strings, but doesn’t completely forgo the artist’s ability at picking some truly great songs. So I can forgive Tillis for pandering to radio since she didn’t loose her identity in the process. Thunder & Roses may be her most uneven effort to date, but I’ve certainly heard a lot worse (and far more desperate) attempts at fitting in with the cool kids.

Grade: B

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