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Hoses of the Holy in the Parallel Universe

October 10, 2003

Well, Martina

Strange it is when an established artist releases one of those "self-titled debut album" type things. Her last record was a Greatest Hits thing, so maybe she feels she's now re-launching her career. Well, whatever.

So. There are a number of things I like about country music. It starts with the production, and includes the quality of song writing, the singing style, the guitar playing, and the slightly different value system, in which the artist is recognised as being a part of a team, albeit a big part.

Production values in country music, for me, are the best in the world. They use the latest, most advanced equipment and techniques (like Pro Tools HD),and yet will also use traditional instruments, like mandolins, banjos, fiddles, penny whistles and pipes. There's a magic in the mix, and in spite of all the stringed instruments competing for the same frequency band, you can hear everything.

As for the songs, Country is where they went. It's not a question of artists "covering" songs, in a Pop Idol type way, but of songwriters and publishing companies working to persuade top artists to record their songs. The definitive version won't be the original writer's, but the one recorded by Ms Yearwood or Ms McBride. This works well, and the best performers get access to the best songs. You won't find someone like Martina struggling to fill an album with her own compositions, though there are a few decent artists who will perform their own songs. But even they will collaborate with a variety of people, so you don't end up with monotonous everything-from-one-point-of-view albums.

I prefer the country singing style, because it's at the other end of the continuum from the emotive, inarticulate woah woah aaaaiiiieeeeeeee type singing you get with R&B and Soul, and most modern pop. It's a style of singing that goes back to similar roots (gospel, testifying) but instead of being all about the emotion and the awe and tremendum before god (which is ultimately all about huge egos and look-at-me), it's about articulation. The country vocal style isn't yee hah and nasal, but about expressing yourself clearly, and letting the lyrical content and other aspects of the performance speak of the emotions.

See, there's always another way of doing things, and what I dislike about the UK mainstream can be summed up in that people always think something is missing if it isn't either a "gritty" rock voice or a up-and-down-the-scales, show-offy pop/soul voice. Singers like Yearwood and McBride are somewhere else, offering perfect articulation along with 100% commitment to the material. Does it matter that they didn't write the songs? Listen to Trisha singing "Down on My Knees" and tell me that it does. You'll also find that Yearwood rarely improvises yelps, yeahs, and woahs. It's all there, in the original song, which is all she performs.

Martina kicks off this new album with her trademark upbeat happy song, something she's good at, and "So Magical" put a smile on my face this morning, in spite of the tribulations of the day. Earlier this week, I stumped up £6.99 for Faith Hill's "Cry," something I'd been avoiding paying full price for, because I knew she'd crossed over to the dark side. Ironic that she's gone from her own self-titled "re-launch" 3rd album "Faith" to this bombastic divatastic powerballad po(m)posity in a few years. What is she chasing? When huge success in a genre of music isn't enough, people make the mistake of chasing the lowest common denominator. This music is like an American supermarket's cheese counter. You can have Swiss, or American, but it all comes from the same (rubber) factory.

So in this day of rampant greed and laziness, it's refreshing to see Martina sticking to what she's good at, and putting out an album of (other people's) songs recorded in a state-of-the-art Pro Tools HD studio facility. It sounds fantastic, her voice is stronger than ever, and even the record company's attempts at so-called "copy protection" can't spoil my day. It says it won't play on a Mac, but of course it does. And I've imported the songs into iTunes, too. I call that fair use, I don't know about you.


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