My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Janis Ian

Album Review – Kathy Mattea – ‘Love Travels’

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 – 

Album Review: Kathy Mattea – ‘Untasted Honey’

The confidence engendered by the success of Walk The Way The Wind Blows enabled Kathy to follow the same path with its successor released in 1987. Allen Reynolds’s clean, crisp production marries tasteful rootsiness with radio appeal, and the songs are all high quality and well suited to Kathy’s voice.

Poetic lead single ‘Goin’ Gone’ headed straight to #1, becoming Kathy’s first chart topper. Reflecting Kathy’s folkier side, it was written by Pat Alger, Fred Koller and Bill Dale, and like her earlier hit ‘Love At The Five And Dime’, it had been recorded by Nanci Griffith on her The Last Of The True Believers. Kathy is a significantly better singer than Nanci, and her version of the song is quite lovely.

The second #1 from the album was ‘Eighteen Wheels And A Dozen Roses’, probably Kathy’s best remembered song and certainly one of her biggest hits. The warmhearted story song (written by Paul and Gene Nelson) has a strong mid-tempo tune and a heartwarming lyric about a trucker headed for a happy retirement travelling America with his beloved wife.

Singer-songwriters Craig Bickhardt and Beth Nielsen Chapman provide vocal harmony on both these singles, as they do on the title track, which Bickhardt wrote with Barry Alfonso. Here, a restless self-styled “free spirit” yearns for the wide open spaces,

Where a soul feels alive
And the untasted honey waits in the hive

It sounds beautiful, although the faithful lover left behind gets short shrift.

Tim O’Brien’s ‘Untold Stories’ made it to #4. An insistent beat backs up a positive lyric about looking past all the hidden hurts of the past in favour of reconciliation with an old love. O’Brien, a fellow West Virginian who was at that time the lead singer of bluegrass band Hot Rize, sings harmony and plays mandolin and acoustic guitar on the track, while The Whites’s Buck White plays piano. O’Brien also wrote ‘Late In The Day’, a highlight of the record with a downbeat lyric about late night loneliness, an acoustic arrangement and perfectly judged vocal. It’s the kind of song Trisha Yearwood would have done well with a few years later, and Kathy’s version shows just how good a singer she is, both technically and as a master of interpretation.

His contribution to the album did not end with these two songs, as he also duets with Kathy on Don Schlitz and Paul Overstreet’s beautiful ‘The Battle Hymn Of Love’, a wedding song based on the vows of a marriage ceremony. It was belatedly released as a single in 1990, to promote Kathy’s A Collection Of Hits compilation, and reached the top 10. A slight folk feel is lent by both Tim’s vocal stylings and the use of hammered dulcimer in the pretty arrangement.

The album’s last official single (another to peak at #4) was the melancholy ballad ‘Life As We Knew It’. It is almost a prequel to ‘Untold Stories’ with its story of a woman packing up her things, filled with regret for the life she is leaving behind. It was written by Walter Carter and Fred Koller, and has a particularly beautiful, soaring melody. Jerry Douglas guests on dobro, and Tim O’Brien harmonizes again.

One of Kathy’s favorite writers, Pat Alger, teamed up with Mark D Sanders to write ‘Like A Hurricane’, which picks up the pace a bit. West Virginia references ad lovely instrumentation lift a well-performed but otherwise unremarkable song. The tender love song ‘As Long As I Have A Heart’, written by Dennis Wilson and Don Henry, has a pretty tune and acoustic arangement, and is very good. The delicately sung ‘Every Love’, co-written by folkie Janis Ian with country songwriter Rhonda Kye Fleming, offers an introspective overview of the nature of love, and has a stripped down acoustic backing featuring the harp.

Untasted Honey was Kathy’s best selling album to date, and her first to be certified gold. It is also a very fine record which stands up well after quarter of a century, and contains some of Kathy’s best work. It is available digitally, and can be found cheaply on CD.

Grade: A