Reba McEntire's Duets project is either the return of one of the biggest stars country music has ever seen, or an effort to try to regain some of that popularity now that another generation of Nashville musicians has claimed the radio, video, and sales spotlight. Duets is only the second album of new songs by McEntire to appear in the last eight years -- an eternity in Nashville (and being the star of a sitcom doesn't count for much). Her last, Room to Breathe, appeared almost four years ago and spawned the hit "I'm Gonna ...
Reba McEntire's Duets project is either the return of one of the biggest stars country music has ever seen, or an effort to try to regain some of that popularity now that another generation of Nashville musicians has claimed the radio, video, and sales spotlight. Duets is only the second album of new songs by McEntire to appear in the last eight years -- an eternity in Nashville (and being the star of a sitcom doesn't count for much). Her last, Room to Breathe, appeared almost four years ago and spawned the hit "I'm Gonna Take That Mountain," propelling the album to a number four position on the Billboard country chart and a brief stay at 25 in the pop chart. That said, a project like this, with so much hype and expense incurred behind and because of it, demands an artist with staying power and a legacy to fall back on, and she has it: for starts, thirty number one singles. As for Duets, there is no shortage of star power, and it's multi-generational in terms of the world of pop music. On one side are contemporary country superstars like Kelly Clarkson -- the album's first single, "Because of You," written when Clarkson was 16 years old, has blown up. Kenny Chesney, Rascal Flatts, Ronnie Dunn, Faith Hill, and LeAnn Rimes are also here. So are major, near-legendary talents like Trisha Yearwood and Vince Gill (it's odd to think of Gill as an elder statesman of country, but in a 30-year career that's what he is), who also have active, busy careers and hit the charts whenever they release material. Then there are the "others," those songwriters who do not fit the country mold but are welcome presences here: Carole King (one of the greatest songwriters ever) and Don Henley appear on two of the most successful tracks in the set. Finally, there's the rogue outsider who is simply a pop superstar: Justin Timberlake. (If you roll your eyes at what he's doing here, you're right: he had an inside connection since his business partner dates McEntire's daughter.)As for the quality of the tracks -- since most music biz projects like this crash and burn after a few weeks or upon getting trounced by critics -- this one is a mixed bag, but in a good way. McEntire's performance with Rimes on "When You Love Someone Like That" is stellar. The co-written duet between the flaming redheaded country diva and Ronnie Dunn, "Does the Wind Still Blow in Oklahoma?" is an honest to goodness country song, and works as much because of the high lonesome in Dunn's beautiful baritone as it does the headliner's act. "Because of You" may be the hit, but the song is simply a big, overblown power ballad with guitars compressed to the breaking point, sweeping strings, and enormous crashing cymbals -- think Jim Steinman and you get it. (Not that Tony Hit Man Brown's a whole lot different in his own genre, but this could have been a Meat Loaf reject from Bat out of Hell II). A similar problem plagues "Faith in Love" with Rascal Flatts. It's got what it takes for radio, no doubt about it, but it's a song everybody will be sick of sooner rather than later. Things get back on track with "She Can't Save Him," with Yearwood, who is simply a class act as a stylist, and a woman who never over-sings. It's a lilting piano ballad-turned-big number but Yearwood and McEntire are very suited to one another as singing partners. McEntire has great control, and Yearwood has the amazing ability to be a musical chameleon. It would have been lovely to have a Carole King-written number for the occasion of this duet. That said, however, the newly acquired graininess in King's amazing voice is a fine contrast on this pop-country song that rocks it up enough to stretch McEntire. "Every Other Weekend" with Chesney is somewhat underwhelming. Either of them could have pulled this one off alone (you can hear Chesney making this one truly believable), but together, there's a kind of distance in the voices that all of the strings in Brown's world couldn't make gel. Things work a whole lot...
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