Seven songs into Wildflower, I had to pinch myself just to make sure I wasn't in some horrific dream where I was actually enjoying Sheryl Crow's music. Despite a few minor squabbles, I had thought to myself, this is actually pretty damn good. At about that point, my friends, everything went terribly awry.
"Live It Up," the eighth track on Wildflower, Crow's first album in three years, started innocently enough, with the slow fade-in of an arpeggiated acoustic guitar. And that's when it happened: the most preposterous sounding "ugh" I have ever heard. This "ugh" would have been a minor sticking point had it not forebode what would make me regret thinking I might be able to enjoy Wildflower in its entirety.
Please allow me to travel back to a time in which I was not resenting myself for being so easily taken in.
To Crow's credit, the songs that precede said moment of earth-shattering grief are some of the strongest of her career. Throughout the album, Crow's vocal melodies are her most ambitious and memorable to date. Apparently no longer concerned with the sing-along quotient of her writing, she repeatedly impresses with her pitch-perfect elocution. Lead track "I Know Why" sounds like an outtake from Lee Ann Womack's foray into scorned-woman country music last year (There's More Where That Came From, MCA). Awash in strummed acoustic guitar and plucked banjo, "I Know Why" wholly embraces the antiseptic production and lilting choruses of twenty-first century Nashville. But don't be fooled: Wildflower is no neo-country album.
Both "Perfect Lie" and the title track have an almost Beatles-esque quality. The former is most notable for its lush harmonies, and the latter's stark arrangement makes Crow's breathy delivery impossible to ignore. Likewise, with its Rhodes piano and tambourine, "Lifetimes" is a saccharin sweet pop ditty that wouldn't be out of place with the early '90s work of Beatles devotees Jellyfish.
Although Crow garnered a nomination for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance at last year's Grammy's for "Good Is Good," its hackneyed lyrics -- "good is good and bad is bad/ but you don't know which one you had" -- and conventional arrangement make it an obvious stab at a hit single. "Chances Are" fairs much better. Lacking a modulation, the song is akin to an Indian raga with its repetitive guitar and rarely encountered tablas. Thankfully, Crow resists the urge to culminate the monotony in a radio-friendly crescendo. In an age of formulaic predictability, kudos to Crow for her artistic reserve.
As for the much-maligned "Live It Up," with its jangly guitars and omnipresent guiro, it adjourns the acoustic-based sincerity of the songs that flank it. But in the grand scheme, it is merely one sub-par track. Skip it and spare yourself your own "ugh."
Sheryl Crow Web site (audio/video)
Interscope Web site