City Paper is not for tourists
In the summer of 2001, Patty Loveless was a major country star with a stack of hits behind her and, it could be reasonably assumed, a future consisting of more of the same. Instead, she leveraged her music-biz capital into an album where she shed Nashville polish in favor of a far riskier bluegrass earthiness. The result was Mountain Soul, arguably the best album of her career, and the artistic triumph fueled a renewed confidence that gave her a charged-up kick even when she returned to conventional country. Or did it? The five albums Loveless has released since then have included a Christmas record, a covers collection, and now, with Mountain Soul II, a sequel. For someone who appeared at the start of the decade to be thrillingly reenergized, Loveless has dropped plenty of hints that she’s started running out of ideas. It doesn’t help that Loveless has already tackled five of the new album’s 15 songs. One of them, the marriage-crazy teen freakout “Big Chance,” even seems to be the exact same recording from 2005’s Dreamin’ My Dreams. The other four, stemming from her early hitmaking years, offer a glimpse at an alternate universe where she never played the mainstream country game at all. The all-acoustic instrumentation isn’t enough to disguise the fact that “Half Over You” remains a standard (if effective) weeper, but it does transform “Blue Memories” from a heavy-footed two-step chug to something altogether friskier and more freewheeling. Still, I’d rather hear Loveless in this context than in any other. While her marvelous voice has always been capable of elevating straightforward Nashville material, the stripped-down fire of bluegrass gives her something to chase after. The a cappella one-two punch of spirituals “Friends in Gloryland” and “(We Are All) Children of Abraham” provides the clearest illustration as they shift from a trio to a full choir with Loveless shining dead center in both. “Working on a Building” finds her keening gorgeously in the service of a higher power (not Del McCoury, though he’s on hand to help), while “Bramble and the Rose” recalls the English folk tradition from which bluegrass sprung. And it’s a canny move in 2009 to open with “Busted,” Harlan Howard’s immortal paean to bankruptcy, though Loveless might find that jobs aren’t quite so plentiful in the north as the song seems to hope. (The timeliness of brother John’s family being down with the flu is more accidental). Where Mountain Soul II frustrates most is in its inability to rise to the level of the standouts on its namesake. It’s simply another fine Patty Loveless album in a long line of fine Patty Loveless albums—a worthy bookend to a decade of calling her own shots. If it can’t meet the standards set up by its title, then meeting the standards set up by the singer herself will have to do.