After having watched all the sonic and stylistic directions in which the artists on New West’s roster have gone, it feels more than a little reassuring to see that at least SOME artists are signed to a country music label because they want to make country music – and not necessarily just make music which happens to have a couple of C&W inflections in hand as that music ventures down a different road. Jaime Wyatt is one such artist and, on her sophomore album (first for New West), Neon Cross, the singer presents herself as a breed of singer removed from the other artists on the label; she sin’t exactly interested in trying to bond Country to Pop (that’s been done, Shania Twain made millions with Mutt Lange’s help) so much as she’s interested in sweetening Country with Soul in order to make Country music with an enhanced heart and a spectacular sense of melody which doesn’t need production technology outlets like auto-tune to appeal to appeal to a more Urban audience.
That may sound ambitious, but Wyatt pulls it off so well here that those who have historically disagree with the possibility that Country and Soul can meet will begin to feel silly and/or foolish before even one side of Neon Cross plays through – to say nothing of both.
After a piano which sounds like it may have been recorded in a concert hall opens “Sweet Mess” with a bit of grandeur, Wyatt sets herself up at stage centre before a microphone which simultaneously produces an image for the singer to live within as well as establishing a mood to inhabit. Like Joss Stone before her (although, granted, with a little more whiskey in her throat), a host of sensations erupt from the song’s mix and arrangement as soon as the singer lets her voice off its leash; there is a vibrant spirit which can light up a room, just enough of a crack in her voice to imply the possibility of a life lived (occasionally) hard, enough breath in Wyatt’s delivery to carefully state that the girl is not so proud that she won’t weep if wronged just the right way, and enough passion to start a fire with the heat in her.
“Is all of that really so easy to pick out in a listener’s first introduction to Neon Cross,” you ask?
Damned right it is, reader. It’s possible to pick all of that out within the first minute of “Sweet Mess,” or perhaps even less time than that.
After the hymnal qualities from “Sweet Mess” subside, Wyatt and her band jump into a more raucous stance with both feet. First, the title track gallops out with a testament to heartbreak and lessons learned with the help of “honky tonks and strangers” before spelling out the singer’s single greatest fear (living unfulfilled) in “L I V I N” before angling a little more toward an alt-country tone for “Make Something Outta Me” and then easing into a little more heartache to close the side with “By Your Side.” There, it’s true that Jaime Wyatt does sound a little firmer and less open (which doesn’t exactly leave listeners believing that the hurt is real, as a result), and leaves lines about cigarettes and time, looking overripe without much effort. It’s kind of unfortunate that “By Your Side” closes the A-side of the album, to be honest. With the wealth of other great material to choose from, there’s no question that the A-side could have been sequenced much more effectively.
Equally unfortunate is the fact that the pretty overwrought and anachronistic tone of “Just A Woman” opens the B-side. There – just like the A-side’s closer – Wyatt makes a little too much of the “brokenhearted singer” image, particularly given that there’s a line-up of singers who do it better and THIS singer has better strengths with which to work. Listeners will find they feel a little guilty when “Just A Woman” whimpers its way out, but they’ll also be happy to see it go.
Happily, the play does recover when “Goodbye Queen” bursts through with a still slightly wounded but more earnest attitude. There, the tone, tenor and form falls closer to feeling like a cut left unused from I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight by Richard and Linda Thompson – which improves the play of the side exponentially, and leaves listeners ready and able to accept the far more raucous approach of “Rattlesnake Girl.” There, the additions of an old school country melody, a great piano performance and thick low end tones are very, very welcome and listeners will be hooked HARD by the results; after hearing it, no listener will be able to deny that “Rattlesnake Girl” is the standout hit from the album.
After the peak that “Rattlesnake Girl” represents for the B-side of Neon Cross (and for the album as a whole, really), the album doesn’t just sputter to a close but certainly does taper off quickly and dramatically. “Hurt So Bad” plays with precisely all the pieces to make a chart-topping country hit (formulaic melody, temperate-at-most “I should have known better” heartache, chord changes so familiar that ANYONE can name another song which utilizes them) which feels phoned in and closes the record down with a lugubrious cover of Dax Riggs’ “Demon Tied To A Chair In My Brain,” presumably to try and get a little cred with the college rock crowd and works – as long as you’ve never heard the original. If you have heard it though, listeners will find themselves endlessly comparing one performance with the other for all of the couple of minutes it takes to play through the song, until the needle lifts from the album which is (obviously) a problem.
When that needle does lift listeners will find themselves left with the unenviable decision of drawing a conclusion on Neon Cross. As inconvenient as it is going to sound, Neon Cross is a fine enough introduction for Jaime Wyatt to have made, but it brings with it a laundry list of elements which need improvement. Simply said, whatever Wyatt chooses to do next needs to make a very strong, singular statement of intent, and then proceed to flesh that statement out, conclusively in order to really break through. Neon Cross definitely illustrates that Jaime Wyatt has plenty of talent, now all she needs is a direction and very clear vision of who she wants to be and what she wants to accomplish on her next release. With that in hand, she’ll be golden; here’s hoping she figures it out quickly.