Jo Dee Messina
or years, country radio has focused its attention on women ages 25-44; that’s where their advertisers think the buying power is, so that’s who the stations most want listening. With a few exceptions (alpha male Toby Keith comes to mind), the biggest stars of the genre are those who appeal to that coveted demographic: pinups like Kenny Chesney, Keith Urban, and Rascal Flatts, alongside women such as Martina McBride, queen of the message song, and redneck queen manqué Gretchen Wilson. (Some breakout artists of recent years have done so despite this, such as Big & Rich, who owe demos-be-damned CMT a whole lot.) Back into this fray comes Jo Dee Messina, whose first album in 4 years (an eternity in country, where even superstars such as Toby Keith and Tim McGraw tend to release new music on a yearly basis) is targeted squarely towards this audience. For better or worse—mostly better—she hits the bull’s-eye with Delicious Surprise.
By and large, this is 12 songs’ worth of female empowerment (there’s even a cliché-fest titled “Life Is Good,” whose embarrassing chorus is “I’ve got my two feet on the ground / Breathin’ in and breathin’ out / Oh-whoa / Yeah / Life is good”—it’ll get great sing-along response when Messina hits the road, trust that), which makes it all the more odd that much of the CD’s packaging seems to target men who, frankly, aren’t much going to bite. The back cover features a prominent photo of Messina wearing a black lace brassiere under a crop-top denim jacket—but, oddly, she’s also revealing about an inch of what appears to be boxer briefs (?!) above her jeans. There’s also an alert on the back cover of a “POSTER INSIDE”; said poster, which is simply the CD booklet unfolded, is another odd photo, of Messina seeming to stroke a guitar lovingly. The booklet also features one of her coyly covering her breasts with only her arms. This all serves to send awfully mixed messages, since most of the songs here are so clearly female-oriented. I blame Curb Records rather than Messina herself.
The content of the album inside all of this odd packaging, however, largely gets it right. The production (Messina herself co-helmed nine of the album’s 12 tracks, and her buddy McGraw assisted on the other three) tends towards the Nashville-slick and a bit samey—basically, Jo Dee’s got two speeds, uptempo and ballad—but from “Someone Else’s Life” (time to make a change and do what you really love) to “Who’s Crying Now” (you realized you broke up with me too late), this raven-haired woman seems to know of what she sings. If she doesn’t, she’s selling it even better than I think she is.
When a country artist has been absent from the airwaves (with new material, that is; a number of her previous hits have become sturdy recurrents, from “Heads Carolina, Tails California” on), her comeback single takes on even greater importance than your typical first salvo from a new album. Fortunately, Messina hits one out of the park on “My Give A Damn’s Busted,” which hit the top 5 on Billboard’s country singles chart in advance of the album’s release (and I suspect will go all the way to the top). She reminds listeners that Gretchen Wilson and Terri Clark aren’t the only women in country who can give attitude on this fierce, funny kiss-off to an ex whom she’s determined to keep that way. Littered with pop-psych-speak familiar to any fan of Oprah or Dr. Phil (not only a reference to Prozac, but rhyming “your codependent ways” with “who’s your enabler these days?”), you can hear the smirk on Messina’s face as she sings it, and the fun’s infectious. It doesn’t hurt, either, that “my give a damn’s busted” is a phrase ripe to enter the national lexicon.
“Love Is Not Enough” and “You Were Just Here” are fairly interchangeable country ballads (the latter would work better for Faith Hill), inoffensive and unexceptional in every way, but Messina’s at least got the lungs for ‘em. Much better are the cheeky “It’s Too Late to Worry,” about a naughty night spent in a beat-up Chevy, and the all-you-get-is-me steel guitar and dobro-kissed midtempo (the exception proving the rule) “I Wear My Life.” Delicious Surprise isn’t a great album, but is a pretty good one, and by far the best of Messina’s career. She may never be a stand-up-and-notice kind of artist, but she’s awfully good at what she does, and sometimes that’s good enough.