No record collection is complete without a copy of â€œDusty in Memphis,â€ British singer Dusty Springfield’s singer’s 1969 classic that included â€œSon of a Preacher Man,â€ and showed that soul has no geographic boundaries.
Sheryl Crow grew up a lot closer to Memphis than Springfield as we learn from â€œ100 Miles From Memphis,â€ the title of her new album which references the distance from that soul capital and her hometown of Kennet, Mo.Â The songs here, most of them originals, are patterned after the lush, layered soul music she grew up on. This is Al Green’s Memphis, not Elvis’s.
Opener, the peppy â€œOur Love is Fading,â€ utilizes one of the great songwriting tricks: downer lyrics set to deceptively up-tempo melodies. In this case, there are even horns and sassy backing girl-group vocals. We’re guessing the refrain of â€œYou Keep Me Hanging On,â€ is a very deliberate Supremes homage.
That’s part of the fun of â€œ100 Miles.â€ Memphis is a reference point, but not the only destination here. There are just as many nods to the great music coming out of Motown in the â€˜60s as Memphis, or the colorful sounds from Muscle Shoals, Ala.Â
While one doesn’t necessarily think of Crow and soulful in the same sentence, much of her past music has captured a sense of longing that has served her well and could pass for her own brand of blue-eyed soul. Add in horns, organs, a thumping bass and some bright arrangements, and there’s soul here aplenty, especially on such tracks as the spritely â€œPeaceful Feeling.â€
Lyrically, she also adopts a spirit of the â€˜60s and â€˜70s vibe, such as on the â€œcan’t we all get alongâ€ vibe of the reggae-tinged â€œEye to Eye,â€ one of the weaker tracks (even with Keith Richards on guitar), or on the sweetly chugging â€œLong Road Home.â€
First single, the mid-tempo â€œSummer Day,â€ is a languid look back at a day that changed everything for the better. It’s so laid back, you can practically feel your bare feet caressing a newly mowed lawn while listening to it.Â
An exception to the retro vibe is the mid-tempo â€œSay What You Want,â€ which sounds aimed straight at today’s politicos and pundits who spew hate with no regard for the facts. â€œSo much noise, so much chatter/ does the truth even matterâ€¦If this is America, you’d never know it.â€ Like â€œOur Love is Fading,â€ the tempo belies the cynical lyrics. Plus, is there any song that doesn’t benefit from a Stevie Wonder-like harmonica riff?Â Â The lush, beautiful ballad â€œStopâ€ is one of the few that sounds like it could be taken from any of Crow’s past albums.
Among the covers here are a sultry slowed-down take on Terence Trent D’Arby’s mid-80s hit, â€œSign Your Name,â€ with Justin Timberlake singing backing vocals in what is a somewhat squandered opportunity. It would have been more fun to hear the two stars interact more. Crow also tackles a faithful version, down to the backing vocals, of The Jackson 5’s â€œI Want You Back.â€Â She tells Billboard that while recording another song that ultimately didn’t make the album, she burst into â€œI Want You Backâ€ and the band followed. It feels appropriately spontaneous and light and is a nice homage to Michael Jackson, for whom Crow once sang backing vocals.
Crow, working with producers Doyle Bramhall II and Justin Stanley, sounds confident and relaxed hereâ€”a little too relaxed, actually, on such numbers as the bluesy â€œRoses & Moonlight.â€
Sometimes, concept albums can feel over ambitious or just the oppositeâ€”like throwaways. Crow has created something in between that hits far more than it misses and reveals a fun, bubbly side to her that is often missing in her other recordings.Â Â
“100 Miles to Memphis”Â will be available on Tuesday, July 20.