Martina McBride, "Timeless"
It's the curious fate of cover albums to be received first and foremost for who or what they cover, second for how -- crazy new arrangements? a failed attempt at re-recording the original? -- and always only last (or not at all) as records of someone performing actual songs. This is no less true for country songstress Martina McBride -- the reigning Country Music Association's top female vocalist and a Grammy winner -- and her new album of old country classics, "Timeless." The reviews are uniformly positive, but mostly focus on song selection and seem to leave aside the question of whether it's an album worth laying down your hard-earned money for. Instead, they heap the praise on McBride for her excellent taste -- the New York Times calling "Timeless" an "elegant disc on which she sings a smartly chosen selection of country classics," and Billboard agreeing that her "choice of material is immaculate....Props to McBride for reviving some of country's very best." The album is full of spare, heart-wrenched tunes by country greats like Hank Williams, Loretta Lynn, Buck Owens and Tammy Wynette, and it doesn't hurt that McBride's chosen a modest route to arranging the material that puts the songwriting in the foreground -- as the AP puts it, "Country fans who lament that their music has gone slick pop can rejoice with 'Timeless.' Martina McBride - no stranger herself to overproduction - has produced a wonderful compilation of classics."
As for McBride's performance, the Los Angeles Times (three and a half stars out of four) happily reports that the disc "introduces you to McBride, who hasn't received the pop exposure of Faith Hill or Shania Twain, though she is a more heartfelt country singer than either." Billboard chimes in: "That Martina McBride owns one of the most impressive vocal instruments in Nashville goes without saying, but whether her powerhouse voice is a good match for country standards is another question. The answer is yes, mostly." The reviews point to a few missteps: her "histrionics on Don Gibson's 'I Can't Stop Loving You'" (L.A. Times) and when she "oversings a bit on more subtle material like 'I Can't Stop Loving You'" (Billboard). But the general agreement is there is a lot of heart behind the album. "I don't feel like I'm setting out to do any heroic preservation," McBride told Billboard in an interview. "I just love this music... I did songs that felt like home to me."
The Fiery Furnaces, "Rehearsing My Choir"
The blues-infused brother and sister act the Fiery Furnaces (not to be confused with that blues-infused pseudo family duo, the White Stripes) have been deliberately defying expectations since their first release, 2003's "Gallowsbird's Bark." Their new release continues the trend -- they are very clearly a love or hate kind of band, and the difference between the two seems to come down to the individual listener's patience. Billboard sums up the new project nicely: "Never afraid to divide critics or challenge fans, the wildly talented brother/ sister duo of Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger reach new heights of weirdness with a vanity project/ concept album starring their 83-year-old grandmother Olga Sarantos." The Guardian (four stars out of five), is mostly happy with the outcome, but even still it lays the caveats on thick: "Naturally, it's not simple. Most of these songs begin as poetic recollections and only become clear-eyed narratives mid-way through." In the end, though, the British paper's final assessment is all positive ("It's not pop. It's not rock. It's just a stack-shoed step from Tommy in terms of pomposity. But it's an absolute joy.") whereas the usually blithe Billboard comes down hard: "For listeners patient enough to endure Sarantos' dominating spoken-word narrativeand they will be hard-pressed -- there are fleeting gems to be found in the pastiche of zigzagging riffs and shifting tunes."
On the more negative end of the scale, the album draws fire from both the mainstream press and alternative online publications. Entertainment Weekly writes that the album's "spoken-word soliloquies only deepen Choir's too-clever-for-its-own-good impenetrability." Pitchfork (rating: 4.0) thinks that even though it fails as an album, it would be great as an NPR piece: "As a think piece, Rehearsing My Choir is enormously engaging, but as a pop record, it's exhausting and fruitless. Narrative supersedes melody time after time; there are no real songs, just cacophonous noodling and stacks and stacks of polysyllabic words." CokemachineGlow (rating: 23%) is merely unimpressed with the whole thing. The song "Rehearsing My Choir" comes in for special ire: "The title track is ludicrously awful. It features nauseating keyboard effects, a choir singing out of tune and grandma admitting 'that doesn't sound good!' No it doesn't, grandma."
Marty Stuart, "Badlands"
Following close on the heels of his blues and gospel tinged "Soul's Chapel," the fact that Stuart's new album chooses Native American culture as it's landscape is as surprising the fact that he's still churning out albums at all. As Billboard says of the effort, "The ever-affable, '90s hillbilly rocker Stuart, his hits well behind him, has suddenly re-emerged, with two albums in two months and some of the most daring music of his career." The inspiration for the album is pretty clear, as Amazon.com writes: "With this concept album, Marty Stuart pays tribute to the Sioux culture of what is now South Dakota and to the inspiration of Johnny Cash, whose band once included Stuart and who also developed a strong affinity for American Indian traditions." But while Billboard also gives him praise for the honesty of the result -- "Stuart embraces Native American stories and causes with riveting effect" -- the N.Y. Times finds it all a bit forced. "The subject is too vast," the paper writes. "It forces Mr. Stuart into clichid language about dignity and poverty and the history of mistreatment of Indians at the hands of white men. It's an impressive gesture for a country singer, or any popular musician. But it doesn't leave much of a mark." It's a sentiment echoed by Amazon -- "Though it's hard to fault Badlands' good intentions and pointed social commentary, much of it is stronger thematically than musically. Spoken-word interludes that provide transitions might not bear repeated listenings, while the wordless 'Hotchkiss Gunner's Lament' (with Stuart's wife, Connie Smith, providing atmospheric vocals) succumbs to new-age romanticism."
-- Scott Lamb