Kelly Clarkson: Wrapped in Red
Is there anything Kelly Clarkson doesn't sound great singing? She hops from dance anthems ("Stronger") to breezy country-soul ("Don't Rush") and points between with ease. So for her Christmas album Wrapped in Red, Kelly goes from full-on Darlene Love with Phil Spector in the original single "Underneath the Tree" and title track, co-penned by Shane McAnally, to a spectacularly soulful cover of "Blue Christmas" and a more traditional take on "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas."
Kelly makes her country connections even clearer by bringing in Ronnie Dunn to duet on a jazzy version of "Baby It's Cold Outside," and then closing out the album with a breathtaking rendition of "Silent Night" with Trisha Yearwood and Reba McEntire, singing the final verse a cappella in triple harmony.
Wrapped in Red is a stylistic maverick, for sure, but the original tunes are worthy of sitting next to the standards, and when Kelly sings, it's like Christmas all year round.
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Jennifer Nettles: "That Girl"
Release date : Aug. 20, 2013
In Sugarland's sublime smash "Stay," Jennifer Nettles sang from the perspective of a mistress who pleads with her lover not to return to his wife. The narrator in "That Girl," Jennifer's spellbinding solo debut single, is the antithesis of that. She's a woman who, after hooking up with a spoken-for man, does what every philandering guy dreads: She calls his lady to spill the beans and clear the air.
I don't want all the dirty looks / The headlines / So I call you to explain why / I wound up with your guy.
Why exactly? Because she doesn't want to be "that girl." It's Dolly Parton's "Jolene" cleverly turned on its head, thanks to the combined writing talents of Jennifer and Butch Walker, the magical live performer and pop producer who shares Georgia statehood with J. Net.
"That Girl," however, like the upcoming album the track is from, is produced by Rick Rubin, the visionary behind Johnny Cash's haunting, spare American recordings.
Jennifer's single is similarly stripped down, propelled by thumping bass, hand claps and plinking guitar, giving the whole thing a Flamenco feel. Refreshingly, there's no slick production here. The payoff, though, is the chanteuse's smokey vocals, which prove yet again why Jennifer is one of country (or pop's) most nuanced singers.
Sugarland may be on hiatus, but if this is what we can expect from a Jennifer solo, it sure sounds sweet.
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Vince Gill and Paul Franklin: 'Bakersfield'
It's almost unfair to call 'Bakersfield' a Vince Gill and Paul Franklin album, because there are so many other skilled musicians who add an important solo, fill or backbeat to the 10-song project. Often when so much talent fills a room, egos bump like elephants at feeding time. But there's space for everyone on this project.
Buck Owens' 1961 hit 'Foolin' Around' opens a collection of alternating Owens and Merle Haggard covers. Gill and Franklin work like a polished vocal duo, only the pedal steel is Franklin's voice. He compliments Gill like Brooks did for Dunn, or Carter did for Cash. Like they do on many of the songs, the two stay true to the original version here, adding only a touch of contemporary style to the traditional sound.
Initially, it's difficult to take Gill seriously on the more rugged songs from Haggard. He's anything but a 'Branded Man,' but by the time one gets to 'The Bottle Let Me Down' and later 'The Fightin' Side of Me,' he makes up the difference. Moreso than on the Owens hits, one has to separate what they know of these songs to appreciate the new perspective Gill brings.
Haggard's 'I Can't Be Myself' is the star's finest vocal moment. He relies on his high register for much of the song and has no trouble reaching up to hit the "pleases." Not lost is his guitar playing, which finally gets a showcase during 'Holding Things Together.' He solos in other spots as well, but this is the longest and most memorable.
Franklin shines throughout the album, especially on 'Together Again,' during a solo that was considered amongst the best steel solos of all time after it was released in 1964. One really gets to hear the fine details of the instrument. The warbles, the whines and the cries produced from his picking come out cleaner than freshly-laundered whites.
As a whole, the album's production is notable for being crystal clear. Each instrument stands out without stepping out. Fans of 'Bakersfield' will praise the two men's playing, but they should also shower the production with accolades. You'll struggle to find two more professional, humble musicians in Nashville, and those qualities - along with a top notch band and great songs - make for a very satisfying listen.
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