Critics always applaud when a country artist breaks away from country music - as if flat-out country is something to be ashamed of. Willie Nelson got more raves for 1998's Teatro, a solid if by-the-numbers Daniel Lanois job, than he has for the dozen-odd more characteristic albums he has released since. And Shelby Lynne got stacks of acclaim for breaking away from Nashville, with hardly anyone mentioning that her Nashville albums were in fact quite good.
True, some artists' idiosyncrasies demanded a break from country's confines; Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, and Mary Chapin Carpenter are the prime examples. But I'll gladly take the most formularized Nashville production over a dud like Lynne's Glen Ballard-produced Love, Shelby - or for that matter, Kim Richey's last two albums, 1999's Glimmer and 2002's Rise, where some promising song ideas were sunk by a cushy, Adult Contemporary sound.
Chinese Boxes, Richey's Vanguard debut and her first album in 5 years, is stronger overall. But it, too, suffers from wedging some perfectly good countryish songs into an AC/pop format. Her producer here is Giles Martin, Sir George's son, on his first solo job since he and his dad helmed the Beatles' Love. And it seems that Giles is in love with Aimee Mann's last batch of albums, because he uses the exact same sonics here: vibes, brushed drums, double-tracked lead vocals, Wurlitzer piano, mellotron, and other exotic keyboards. That works fine when the song is a ballad, but not when Richey's equally solid power-pop and country instincts show up. How about a fiddle or a mandolin, so that upbeat tracks like "I Will Follow" and "Not a Love Like This" can work up a head of steam? Hell, how about a proper lead guitar, instead of the wimpy acoustic solo on the former tune?
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