Blame the Vain
wight Yoakam's been a yeoman performer and a consistently reliable singer and musician for 25 years, inspiring a generation of singer-songwriters, most notably Chris Isaak. That said, the new album does not entertain in the usual ways, and it does not go out of its way to puzzle or complicate. Recent critics tend to place brilliant bricoleurs above singular craftsmen. It is why Big and Rich's Muzik Mafia have gotten so popular and why Lee Ann Womack's critical similarity to the singer-songwriters of the 70s, or the packaging of her album, got as much attention as her immaculately lush voice. As such, finding this album boring might be a reaction in favour of the current critical flow.
Maybe the production is to blame for it feeling so simple: The organs (Hammond and B3) are mixed rather low, so that their effect is hinted at. The guitars (acoustic and electric) are explicit in their intentions, carrying off the lyrics in a propulsive way, and the percussion is so well constructed, it deserves its own mention. Mitch Marine takes care of percussion here, and he is masterful. Some of his instrument choices appear impossible to use without appearing stale. Cowbells, handclaps, even bongos—but he does it. The cowbell on “Blame The Vain,” is an accent, and not a SNL punchline, Marine's bongos on “Intentional Heartache” aren’t exotica, or novelty, but a steady backbone, while the handclaps on the rollicking and well-constructed “Three Good Reasons” have a little bit of the old time religion made secular.
There are other things indicating excellent craftsmanship. The emotions presented are well within what is expected on a country album, with a respect for both monogamy and heartbreak. There are no great innovations here, and the odd attempt to move into something more radical sounds forced. (The first thirty seconds or so of “She'll Remember” sounds like the Pet Shop Boys fronted by Billy Bragg but quickly returns to expected form.) Speaking of the writing, there are lines in the work that are fantastic, elegant, self-contained, simple, and heartbreaking—for example: "press your soft lips against me / And let our weak hands deal out love's sad fate" from “Lucky That Way” or "small lost hopes that loom" from “Just Passing Time” or “Take her away / But don't let me see / Who the last heart in line / Turns out to be" from “The Last Heart in Line.”
Unfortunately, there is not a radio single on this work, and it does drag—it all sounds the same, all well-crafted, all well-constructed, but in the end nearing anemic. That said when was the last time you heard Mr. Yoakam on the radio? He is expected to do something, and he delivers. Not really caring about anything but his core audience. Putting it another way: he made his money and he's just doing what he wants to do now—and there is nothing wrong with that—it should in fact be encouraged, constant formal innovation becomes tiresome and calcified. It's solidity then, that’s the charm here. And you can hardly fault him for that.
Reviewed by: Anthony Easton
Reviewed on: 2005-06-22