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Sheryl Crow “100 Miles To Memphis” Review

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While Sheryl Crow‘s multi-platinum Tuesday Night Music Club was still pumping out a mammoth wave of singles, a beginner’s guide to soul & southern-flavored rhythm and blues was released in the form of the 1994 Rhythm, Country and Blues compilation. The record attempted to glorify the depth of influence that the “Memphis Sound” continues to have on musicians by pairing contemporary country artists with traditional blues & soul legends. On the whole the album was a good listen, but the results were often inconsistent; the awkward pairings tended to fumble through the celebrated standards while attempting to find common ground. The point is that even a well orchestrated tribute to a sound that defined an era isn’t a sure-thing. 100 Miles To Memphis is Crow’s attempt to dip her toes in the same deep waters as some of popular music’s icons; a self-defined return to a sound which she grew up to listening to while living in Kennett, Missouri—which is literally about 100 miles from Memphis. The result, however, falls even shorter than Rhythm, Country and Blues did.

Sheryl Crow is a very talented singer and musician, and her records have continually been received with glowing acclaim from fans. Although her last album, 2008′s Detours, was the first of her career to fail to reach platinum status upon its release (that said, it’s still sold some 700,000 copies worldwide), she is still regarded one of the premier acts within the realm of her style. That said, both rhythm & blues and soul are genres which hardly grant artists the freedom to simply dabble in, and for better or worse, Sheryl Crow is a pop musician trying to do just that here: dabble.

“Our Love Is Fading” introduces the presence of horns and guitar noodling, but Crow’s range fails to lead the song; backup singers are eventually given center stage in an attempt to help propel the sound towards something bearing the slimmest bit of emotion. Later, Justin Timberlake joins Crow for a rendition of Terence Trent D’Arby’s “Sign Your Name,” but the song eventually incorporates a series of “shoo-do-wop-bop”s to offset their chorus. “Stop” is hindered by it’s attempt at nurturing a series of direct breaks: the backup singers melodically bellowing “stop” as the song repeatedly halts. By the time 100 Miles To Memphis reaches the album’s title track, the record’s allusions to soul have regressed to simple harmonizations and an electric organ which quietly lurks in the background.

This isn’t to say that the entire album is purely trivial though. Aside from its clichéd breaks, “Stop” also has a swooping range and floats through a wide range of motion as Crow attempts to mirror the song’s instruments with her voice. Interestingly, the slow-to-boil “Sideways” finds more depth than the Citizen Cope original despite Cope actually joining Crow in the duet. The song’s piano and strings gracefully rest below the duo’s vocals, each part embracing one another which adds a substantial feeling of passion to the track. “Roses At Midnight And Moonlight” lurks beneath a lengthy shadow of cool organ and a lanky guitar, wah-wah-ing alongside Crow’s sultry vocals. “Turn up the heat” she moans, entangling her voice with those of her backup singers. Continuing, she croons, “Bodies on fire, go on and teach me the ways of desire.” As pleasant as these examples are, however, they are outliers on the album; for the better part of the release, 100 Miles To Memphis falls into glorified mall-pop territory.

There is nothing particularly wrong with songs like “Summer Day” or “Peaceful Feeling,” but they’re only enjoyable in the sense that the background music playing at Wal-Mart is enjoyable. “Long Road Home” adds a bit of twang on the surface and the well intentioned “Say What You Want” continues by bouncing a tacky, overproduced beat around as Crow lyrically glazes over modern dilemmas with the country’s patriotism. As far as awkward goes though, “Say What You Want” is far from the peak on the record. “Eye To Eye,” the completely unnecessary collaboration with Keith Richards, takes the cake in that regard as it carries an oddly placed reggae vibe without actually sounding anything like an honest reggae track; Richards’ guitar line could have easily been replicated by just about any competent musician. A cover of the Jackson 5‘s “I Want You Back” finds Crow forcefully attempting to strip her voice of its years rather than embracing the increasingly weathered character of her tone. The result, to put it bluntly, is actually kind of creepy. Fitting that it closes 100 Miles To Memphis though, as “I Want You Back” does well to embody the feeling that runs throughout the entire record: good intentions aside, Crow is continually unable to channel the spirit that was originally captured by the music of her past.

After all her travels, her lifetime of experiences, and her growth as both a human and as a musician, Sheryl Crow has returned to the south, settling in at an acreage outside of Nashville with her two young sons. And in rediscovering a part of her past she has also attempted to return to a sound that reflects her musical roots. With 100 Miles To Memphis however, the only point that thoroughly translates is that while Crow might have only been 100 miles from Memphis as a child, musically she now couldn’t sound any further away.