Tuesday, September 30, 2008

As the Crow flies

Sheryl Crow
Score: 5

Somewhere between the
time Sheryl Crow went
from mold-scraping and french toast-serving to
Kid Rock-dating (and dumping), her earth went fallow. Conflict and passion leached, she sang a could-be ode to tanning. 2005's glossy and conventional Wildflower didn't help matters. This time around, she comes armed with some serious fodder, namely a broken-off engagement, a recovery from cancer, and an adopted son. Yet for all the creative possibility these topics offer, Crow often proves unable to convert that to a powerful performance.

In "Make It Go Away (Radiation Song)," for instance, her exam-table entreaties are fairly flat despite the gravity of the situation, and when her multitracked voice is used for an overlapping effect, the result doesn't resemble mortal pleading, but surface-level whining.

"Diamond Ring" is a small improvement: Over the stagger of a kick-snare beat, Crow recalls how her push to get married was the catalyst in dissolving a relationship (with Lance Armstrong, in all likelihood). An organ churns for the chorus as Crow tests her pipes. It's a rare instance of her singing forcefully and reaching for high notes, and it's one of the better songs she's written this decade. Unfortunately, it seems as if she's concentrating on hitting her notes rather than conveying the emotion that she clearly must feel. As a result, she can't quite pull off the pathos. The raw song itself, however, is good enough to become a standard. Assuming Crow's plight is common enough to invite feelings of solidarity, it will be interesting to hear what other artists bring to "Diamond Ring" in the future.

The life change that does produce a solid performance is "Lullaby for Wyatt," a tender tribute to her baby son, in which she expresses premature worries along with the standard pledges of parental caring. "How do I keep you from losing your way?" she wonders, "Hope you'll go out and you'll come back someday." What could have been a treacle cradlesong instead achieves a rounder quality, more representative of the sweep of emotions brought on by new parenthood.

In general, the sparer the song on Detours, the better Crow fares, and vice versa. The title track and "Drunk with the Thought of You," both largely acoustic numbers, whisper their wings with Beatle dust, hinting at Crow's Fab Four appreciation (she covered "Mother Nature's Son" for the "I Am Sam" soundtrack and "Here Comes the Sun" for the "Bee Movie" soundtrack). By contrast, the hippie-dippy "Out of Our Heads" grafts a torpid Euro house beat to slide guitar and accordion, and the percussion for "Love Is All There Is" sounds too canned.

From the beginning, when the loud, pro-studio "Shine Over Babylon" rudely tailgates the pretty, lo-fi folk of "God Bless This Mess," it's apparent that Detours is muddled. But the album's not without its moments.

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