Crystal Bowersox's debut CD "Farmer's Daughter" comes freighted with expectations that extend far beyond a normal first album from a 25-year-old artist who a year ago was playing half-empty bars.
It became an article of faith to anyone who watched Bowersox's run on American Idol this year that she was the one contestant with major league talent among a batch of minor league singers. But was it for real, or were we all rooting for her because of her down-to-earth demeanor, soulful voice, and — let's not kid ourselves — the fact that she's the hometown girl?
On the national stage, Bowersox is now judged next to everyone from Sheryl Crow to Miranda Lambert while being compared to her own idols like Melissa Etheridge. She's no longer the scrappy kid getting up onstage to blow people away in an East Toledo tavern and is instead an artist being hyped on a major label with her first disc coming out just a week before Christmas.
So, can she pull it off? Is she ready for prime time? And is "Farmer's Daughter" genuinely good or a bust?
Yes, and yes on the first two questions. On the third, it's good, but perhaps our expectations are too high because the honest answer is, "It feels like it could've been better." And most importantly, "Farmer's Daughter" reveals an artist who deserves patience from the public and record companies because if she's given a chance to build on this disc and develop as a lyricist and composer, she'll be freaky good in five to 10 years.
The disc kicks off with "Ridin With the Radio" featuring throwback lyrics bemoaning the state of modern radio (not to mention a salty epithet describing the general quality of what she hears coming through the airwaves) and the sound is clearly country with a prominent harmonica instead of fiddles, sort of like Blues Traveler meets Gretchen Wilson. It's a bit generic as about the millionth song written with radio as its theme, but the arrangement is fun and energetic.
An unremarkable cover of the Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth" follows before Bowersox goes back-to-back with a pair of tunes that most northwest Ohioans are no doubt eager to hear: the title track and "Holy Toledo."
"Farmer's Daughter" is an unapologetically angry song, in the vein of Bob Dylan's great put-downs ("Idiot Wind" and "Positively Fourth Street") and Bruce Springsteen's parental angst confessionals ("Independence Day" and "Adam Raised A Cain") with what seems to be a bare-fisted verbal assault on a negligent mother, complete with allusions of domestic violence.
Lines like "sick and tired of your games" and "all I ever wanted was for you to take care of me" and "this was your last chance to prove you wouldn't let me down" will be relatable to anyone who's ever been part of an abusive relationship. Rather than the stripped-down earlier version that circulated on the Internet, this one is an over-the-top aural equivalent of a door slamming in your face.
"Holy Toledo" is a different kind of anthem and Bowersox's strongest song to date. Possessing a killer melody and evocative lyrics, it quickly morphs into a powerful coming-of-age tale that resonates with anyone who's ever loved their hometown while desperately wanting to find a way out.
The song also marks the hinge point for the disc because it is followed by "Lonely Won't Come Around" and veers into poppy territory that is a bit too generic for Bowersox. It's not a coincidence that it is one of the songs that features a cowriter, and while it's bouncy and contemporary "Lonely" feels fluffy; cotton candy when you've grown accustomed to meat and potatoes.
"Hold On," which was written by Kara DioGuardi and Nickelback's Chad Kroeger, is equally problematic, sounding too calculated, too much like, "Here, Crystal, we've written you a hit!" and the result is dull. Among her strengths, which is evident on her originals, is a plain-spoken, earthy approach to lyrics that is charming and, more importantly, real. It's her secret weapon and something that American Idol viewers picked up on: she's a distinct voice, both as a singer and musician.
Contrast "Lonely Won't Come Around" and "Hold On" with "On the Run" and "Kiss Ya," both sexy, funky rockers she wrote herself. They're the sound of an independent woman navigating the world on her own terms as an artist and a person. The overall identity that comes across on "Farmer's Daughter" is of a restless spirit in search of love and independence, two slightly contradictory notions that create an interesting dissonance. It's a complicated notion best expressed on the powerful "Speak Now," which seems to say, "You can hold me if you like, but you'll never hold onto me."
Interesting stuff, no doubt, and it can't be emphasized enough that we're talking about someone who, until a year ago, seemed destined for bouncing around through the music business desperate for a lucky break that maybe, just maybe, would lead to the chance to make a CD. And even then she probably would've been paying for it herself, dealing with low production values and listening back to it years later and thinking, "Damn, this could've been better."
"Farmer's Daughter" is something to be proud of. It's not perfect — the fussy arrangements sometimes get in the way of her voice and the non-Bowersox-penned tunes are weak. But it's not difficult to imagine her recording something down the road that is more stripped down and that reflects all that she's learned over the years lyrically.
Better yet, it proves that the person we saw on TV this year — the one with the voice that burrowed into your soul — is the real deal.
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