Carlene Carter: Carlene Carter (vocals). Personnel: Joe Breen (vocals); Shane McFee (guitar); Guy Allison (keyboards); Sharon Celani, John McFee (background vocals). Much like her step-sister Roseanne Cash's 2006 album, BLACK CADILLAC, STRONGER finds … see full wiki
Pros: Excellent vocals, some really catchy songs, great instruments
Cons: Occasional hints of Shania Twain which scare me
The Bottom Line: Carlene Carter at her best
The Carter-Cash family must surely be the royalty of country music. By the time June Carter married Johnny Cash she had been performing in her family band - the aptly named Carter Family - for decades. In true country style, June had a dramatic personal life, marrying three times; Johnny was her third husband. Each marriage produced a child, and Carlene Carter, whose album "Stronger" I'm reviewing here, was from her first marriage to a honky-tonk singer, Carl Smith.
Carlene started out as more of a rock singer than a country singer. Like her mother she's had a quite an eventful private life with much documented problems with addiction and failed marriages (she has been married four times and her third husband was the British musician Nick Lowe). The death of three members of her family in a short space of time also profoundly affected her and 2008's "Stronger", her first album in thirteen years, is a reflection of how she now feels her life is moving.
The best description I can think of for this album is "county rock". It has shades of Shania Twain although it manages to move towards the more cool side of country (yes, there is one) by some great musical accompaniment such as some nice blue grass fiddle and some simple country arrangements of ballads that could easily fit into several genres.
There's a good mix of ballads and up tempo numbers with the catchy "The Bitter End" opening the proceedings. This song just shouts Carter Family and has a quite a traditional arrangement with Carlene's strong voice bringing the song more up to date.
"Why be Blue", the second number, is another pacy song which has a brilliant banjo accompaniment. It's a song that suggests that Carlene has, perhaps, put those dark years behind her. It's followed by "To Change your Heart" which is a more traditional number which has a wonderfully evocative mandolin line that transports you to nights sitting on the porch in some southern state.
One of the tracks is a reworking of Carlene's song "I'm so cool" which she growls through with conviction, making her previous rendition of this country-style girl power standard sound feeble in comparison. This is Carlene Carter at her rockin' best.
"It takes one to know me" is performed with husband number four (they are still married..., Joe Breen, and it's a tribute to Johnny Cash whose fans may know it as Carlene actually wrote it many years ago when she was nineteen (she's now in her early 50s) as a gift for her step-father who, unbeknown to Carlene until after his death, recorded it with June. It's a nice tribute and a great song but I don't think it fits comfortably on this collection of songs which are predominantly more upbeat. The title track is another tribute, this time to her half-sister Rosey who died mysteriously in 2003. It's a decent enough song, if more than a little clichéd, and the most dramatic number has been saved till last as you might expect.
Former Doobie Brother John McFee produced the album and played most of the instruments. There are some excellent piano melodies throughout the album but what I like best are the classic banjo and mandolin sounds that give the best country feel: here they lend a more traditional feel to some very middle of the road contemporary songs.
In my opinion, this is the best album that Carlene Cater has put out; her voice is better than ever before and there's a strength and personality that we only occasionally glimpsed in the past. If you like Shania Twain, take a listen to this album by someone with a real country heritage who knows how country music ought to sound. "Stronger" shows how country and rock can mix without being horribly embarrassing. If you like performers like Lucinda Williams or Mary Chapin Carpenter but aren't familiar with Carlene Carter, I'd recommend you invest in this album.
1. Bitter End 2. Why Be Blue 3. To Change Your Heart 4. Bring Love 5. I'm So Cool 6. Spider Lace 7. On to You 8. Judgment Day 9. Break my Little Heart in Two 10. It Takes One to Know You 11. Light of Your Love 12. Stronger