Album Review: LeAnn Rimes’ ‘Lady & Gentlemen’

There are no pictures of LeAnn Rimes in a bikini on her new album, “Lady & Gentlemen.” And that”s a good thing.

Over the last few years, Rimes” illicit and now legal relationship with new hubby, “The Playboy Club” star Eddie Cibrian; her incessant tweeting about her life with said new hubby and two stepsons, photos of her in  various kleenex-sized bikinis, and discussion about her seemingly ever-more-slender frame have completely and totally overwhelmed her considerable abilities as a singer.  With “Lady,” out Tuesday, maybe we can all move on.

Rimes was only 13 when she came to national prominence with her preternaturally mature, resonant, rangy vocals on her stone-cold country song “Blue,” which was written originally for Patsy Cline, but the legendary singer died before she could record the tune.

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A number of hits followed, including “How Do I Live” and “Can”t Fight The Moonlight.” She kept making albums, but the radio play leveled off.  Rimes co-wrote all the songs on her last studio album, 2007″s “Family.” She does the complete opposite on “Lady.” The concept here is that Rimes covers classic country songs, originally recorded and/or written by men, hence the “Gentlemen” in the title.

 It”s not the first time a singer has played the gender card: Tori Amos did the same thing with “Strange Little Girls.” That 2001 set featured Amos covering songs written and/or performed first by men, reinterpreted from a female”s point of view.

Rimes sees no need for such a radical reinvention. “Lady” is a beautifully-realized tribute to these classic songs-most of them at least 30 years old- recorded in the same traditional spirit in which they were first released. That is one of “Lady”s” many strong suits. The strongest, of course, is Rimes” expressive voice. She”s 29 now, and, as we”ve all witnessed through her decision to live her private life very publicly, she has come through more than a few scrapes. Not only does she have the vocal prowess to convincingly carry off tunes like Merle Haggard”s “The Bottle Let Me Down” or Kris Kristofferson”s “Help Me Make It Through The Night,” she now has the vocal maturity to do so.

Produced by Vince Gill, Darrell Brown, John Hobbs and Justin Niebank, “Lady” is admirably clean and bright. Whether it”s the snappy drumming on her Grammy-nominated, peppy remake of John Anderson”s “Swingin”,” or the tasteful pedal steel that weaves in and out of “Bottle”  and Freddy Fender”s “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights”  (in which Rimes sings partly in Spanish) every touch feels just right and never heavy handed. Of course, when you have guitar virtuoso Gill playing on nine of the tracks (including on a remake of “Blue” with his side project The Time Jumpers), you”re at quite an advantage from the get-go.

Though she keeps it traditional, Rimes didn”t shackle herself to the original versions: Tennessee Ernie Ford”s “Sixteen Tons” is  cleverly refashioned as a torchy rag with Rimes vamping over insistent horns as if she”s channeling Peggy Lee. It”s one of the album”s high points.

The most recent cover on here (other than her remake of 1996″s “Blue”) is a bluesy remake of Gill”s 1990 tale of heartbreak, “When I Call Your Name.” Maybe she means it as a tribute to her pal, but her approach can”t match the lonesomeness in Gill”s original.  However, Gill fills in with a pleasing guitar solo on this version where a piano solo stands in his original.

Two new songs are tacked on the end here, including current single, the inspirational “Give.”  That”s always a risky tactic since there”s no way the new tunes can match the mastery or recognition of these time-honored classics, but they serves their purpose in that they give Rimes new material to push to radio and give fans a possible taste of where she’s headed musically.

Could “Lady” be more adventurous? Sure, but that”s not the point here (although we wish it were). Without a doubt, Rimes and her producers were extremely capable of shaking things up and would have if they”d wanted to. Instead, they made the decision to make a classic country album steeped in tradition and reverence. There are few artists in contemporary country who could pull this off so admirably. Even George Jones has praised Rimes” remake of “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” one of the best country songs ever written and recorded, and we”d never disagree with The Possum when it comes to country matters.