Is country music made by men inherently sexist? Does it matter if the singer doesnt really mean what hes singing? How can one tell? If you can dance to it, is there any point in thinking about it?
Beats me. We all have a line that shouldnt be crossed, and we rarely agree on where it should be drawn (or, for that matter, what it should be drawn in). In Randy Weeks new album, Madeline, there is something for everyone to love and probably something for many to hate.
Vocals and music normally should be considered as an integrated whole. The words dont evoke the same response, cognitive or emotional, when read from a piece a paper. They also take on different meanings based on musical style and arrangement. Think of the line "youre mine" crooned by a Vegas act and shouted by hard-core rapper. Further, consider a particular melody and arrangement without words, or with two different sets of lyrics. The music "sounds" differently in all three cases, even if nothing else changes but the absence or substance of lyrics.
On Madeline, however, the contrast between words and music is so stark that both beg to be considered separately. Madeline gets my toes tapping and my head worrying.
Lets consider the music first. There isnt a dud on the album. All of the songs feature choruses with great hooks. Weeks uses standard straight-ahead road-house roots-rock arrangements, then throws in a few curves. Several of the songs, such as "Gimme Back My Soul" and "Get Back to Me," sound like Weeks traveled to Nashville after a long stop over in Memphis because of their heavy R&B influence. Weeks voice, high pitched and slightly thin, is reminiscent of an Everly Brother gone solo. Even with some satisfying harmonies supporting him, he still sounds like a boy singing mens songs. Thats not a knock; he isnt a shouter, a pouter, or a growler, which is too often the case for singers in this genre. In fact, he sounds happy.
Which is were the words come in. Many songs have overly macho, if not misogynist themes. On the title track, Weeks boasts, without swagger, that "Im going to muscle in to all your hiding places" and "Aint brakin for no highway sign" (including, presumable, "Stop" "Yield," or "Rest Area Ahead"). Does he care for the woman hes singing about? Yes. But he sure sounds like he wants to take charge of her. On "If I Cut You," he says, "you wouldnt bleed." Ouch. "Dont Step Away" could be a request or a threat.
Then theres "Cant Let Go." Its about an obsessive ex-lover at best, a stalker at worst. Sexist? Hardly. Lucinda Williams cover of the song was rightfully nominated for a Grammy (and wrongfully didnt win). But heres an example of why words and music and arrangements cant really be separated. Williams version, with its moaning slide guitars and cracking vocal, is about a really bad case of the blues. Weeks take, on the other hand, is a flat-out country rock stomp. Is he bummed? He doesnt appear to be. The happy stalker? Maybe. But does Weeks music generally put a slant on his words that wouldnt otherwise be there?
In the end, I dont know whether listeners should be enthralled with Weeks enthusiasm, quality song writing, and vocal harmonies or repelled by his lyrics. Or both. It all depends on how one interprets the songs. I know Ill play the album many more times because of the great tunes and performances, and Ill probably feel guilty every time I do.
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