Friday, November 09, 2007

Reba McEntire - Reba Duets (MCA Nashville 2007)

When a superstar of Reba McEntire’s caliber releases her first-ever album of collaborations with other superstars, expectations are justifiably going to be high. The fact that this is only McEntire’s second new studio album of the decade – and that she hasn’t exactly been lighting the charts afire in recent years – is irrelevant. Not only is she a star of stage (starring in the Broadway revival of Annie Get Your Gun, as well as some much-lauded concert performances of South Pacific) and (small) screen (six seasons of her Reba sitcom), she’s had 22 #1 singles on Billboard’s country chart dating back to 1983. She came ohsoclose to her 24th with the first single from Reba Duets, as the Kelly Clarkson collab "Because of You" stopped at #2.

Kelly Clarkson, you ask? Yep, and Carole King, Don Henley (no stranger to the country world, to be fair - maybe you've heard of this band called the Eagles), and Justin frigging Timberlake, too. This isn't an all-over-the-place approach to an album of duets, however (cf. Elton John, Frank Sinatra): the remainder of Reba's vocal partners are pure A-list country stars, from Kenny Chesney and Rascal Flatts to Vince Gill and Trisha Yearwood. And damned near every one of 'em brings out the best in Reba, and vice-versa.

This album was shepherded very well, by which I chiefly mean song choices and production. The latter was done by Reba and Nashville giant Tony Brown (who just won another CMA Award this week, for producing George Strait's It Just Comes Natural), and I assume they had plenty to do with the former as well. Take the album's opener, "When You Love Someone Like That," sung with LeAnn Rimes. Reba gives one of her best vocal performances in years on this future-classic advice song (older woman advises younger woman, that is), and Rimes pushes herself to keep up, largely pulling it off. It's a hell of a way to kick of an album of this caliber, and there's no let-up.

McEntire and Ronnie Dunn (of Brooks & Dunn) co-wrote their duet, "Does the Wind Still Blow in Oklahoma?," and it's a gem. Both are OK natives, and this tale of leaving the prairie for the bright lights of the big city plays, as you might expect, to their strengths. "Because of You" follows; it makes no sense as a duet, but both Reba and Kelly sing it well (as Kelly should, considering it's her song to begin with), which turns out to be enough. The Rascal Flatts collab works surprisingly well - it's certainly better than a typical RF song - while the Chesney doesn't, one of the few letdowns here. The song isn't the problem, it's the pairing - I just don't buy McEntire and Chesney as a divorced couple. (Their voices don't match so well, either.)

Gill has sung with McEntire before, on their 1993 smash "The Heart Won't Lie," and they're clearly a matched set; both are superlative singers and play well with others. "These Broken Hearts," co-written by Gill, is accordingly superb, contemporary country with a timeless quality to it. Henley's never sung with Reba before, but he famously duetted with Yearwood on her "Walkaway Joe," and he's clearly learned how to meld his pipes with another's over the years (three words: "Leather and Lace"). "Break Each Other's Hearts Again," despite its awkward title, is pleasingly rich, perfect for two singers of their talents.

Not everything here works: in addition to the Chesney mismatch, Carole King's "Everyday People" (not a cover) is a bit too pop-rock to these ears for Reba's talents, and Timberlake's "The Only Promise That Remains" proves that J-Tim is generally better in the company of his buddy Timbo. It's not bad, but it's kinda dull (and oddly, the only track on Reba Duets that's not really a duet; Timberlake mostly just provides backing vocals). Those, however, are the exceptions. The rest of this album is good-to-generally-great; a few selections even approach the brilliance of Reba's classic '93 duet with Linda Davis, "Does He Love You." Call the duet album a gimmick if you need to, but in this case it's not only done its job of bringing Reba to the attention of the general pop public - it also succeeds as her finest work in a decade. A-

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