Yoakam has the voice and the band

CD REVIEWS

June 11, 1998|By J.D. Considine Country Reba McEntire

Dwight Yoakam

Long Way Home (Reprise 46918)

Despite his considerable skills as an actor, Dwight Yoakam is hardly the sort anyone would cast as a country music radical. If anything, he seems quite the opposite, having come up as a dedicated, dyed-in-the-wool traditionalist, a singer who could easily have passed for his generation's Buck Owens.

In a weird way, though, it's Yoakam's devotion to country music's past that ends up making him seem too radical. Because unlike much of the music made in today's Nashville, which uses contemporary pop polish to make country music seem as consistent and dependable as any fast-food burger, the down-home sound Yoakam delivers on "Long Way Home" is as tangy and distinctive as grits in gravy.

It isn't just the high, lonesome twang he brings to the likes of "Same Fool" or "These Arms" that does it. Much as producer Pete Anderson plays up the heartbreak sonority of the singer's sweetly nasal tenor, Yoakam's voice is just one of the elements at work here. Anderson's sly, self-consciously retro sound also plays a part, as does Yoakam's unabashedly anachronistic songwriting.

As much as those elements might bring to the project, what makes "Long Way Home" so affecting is the utter sincerity of the performances. It's easy enough, these days, to find craftsmen capable of emulating the sound of early '60s Nashville, but it's far more difficult to find players who can infuse those vintage licks with genuine emotion.

Yoakam, however, burns with enough intensity to make the very notion of vintage style seem irrelevant. It hardly matters that "Only Want You More" comes on with the frenzied abandon of classic rockabilly, or that "Things Change" carries the mannered majesty of a Phil Spector oldie; both tracks feel as immediate as a newscast, thanks to the raw emotionalism of Yoakam's performance.

Yet even as he lays his heart on the line, Yoakam maintains dTC surprisingly firm grasp on his vocal technique. That catch-in-the-throat pathos he brings to these songs isn't an immutable part of his sound, as it was for Jimmie Rodgers or Tammy Wynette. He may have it on full for the old-timey "Traveler's Lantern," but that doesn't mean he can't keep it in check for the rockabilly croon of "Only Want You More."

Make no mistake: Yoakam is totally in control of his sound, able to convey both murmured regret (as in "I'll Just Take These") and full-throated agony (as on "Yet to Succeed"). His singing may not be as technically dazzling as what some other country singers manage, but it has a gut-level impact second to none. Maybe that's why, in his hands, mannerisms country fans have heard a million times manage to seem as fresh as when they were new.

As awesome as Yoakam's singing may be, it's more than equaled by what his band does. Where some Nashville players go for a sound as slick and clean as a Teflon skillet, Yoakam's crew seems to glory in the grit and grease of old-school country. Of course, it couldn't hurt that Anderson himself is such a hot picker. Equally at home with the flashy chicken-pickin' of "That's OK" and the screaming overdrive he brings to "Listen," there are times when he sounds like some unholy cross between Chet Atkins and Jeff Beck.

In a way, it's that combination of elements - of hillbilly sentiment and rock-bred audacity - that makes "Long Way Home" sound so comforting. Because, as Yoakam reminds us with "Maybe You Like It, Maybe You Don't," that same blend was what made Elvis Presley seem such a radical arrival in Nashville all those years ago. And Lord knows, the town could certainly use a few like him today. ***1/2 If You See Him (MCA 70019)

After spending time with "If You See Him," Reba McEntire's new album, one thought springs to mind: Get this lady some Pips. Because despite her Oklahoma accent and Nashville sensibility, McEntire thrives on the same sort of mannered emotionalism that made Gladys Knight a mainstream pop star. Not that she's forsaken her country roots, since it would be hard to imagine a track like "If You See Him, If You See Her," her tremulous trio with Brooks & Dunn, coming from anywhere but Nashville. But other songs - particularly "Up and Flying" and the big, brassy "All This Time" - are painted with such broad strokes that even with the pedal steel whining behind her, the performances seem more pop than country. **

J.D. Considine

Pub Date: 6/11/98

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