Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
She’s got the voice, the looks, the road experience and the promotional heft (slick videos, eye-catching web page) of the appropriately named Big Machine label behind her. But is there enough natural talent in Lauren Jenkins to push her to the top of the new-artist heap on her debut release? Perhaps, but you’ll need to dig below the sheen slathered over most of the ten tunes on her first official release to find it.
Jenkins jumps out of her career-starting gates with a breakup album, arguably a questionable if honestly inspired move. The opening rocker “Give Up The Ghost” laments that her lover can’t shake the presence of an earlier relationship (“But two of us is one too many/ Open the door and set her free”). She then moves into a treatise on unrequited love (“You’ll never know … how I see your face in every crowd”). There are also tunes about drugging and drinking with “Payday” (“I’m drinkin’ my payday away”), one about “My Bar” (invaded by an ex with a new girlfriend) and two songs that disconcertingly name-check the same famous brand of booze (“Maker’s Mark and You” is the title of one) in a rather brazen example of product placement.
Adding to the somewhat clichéd subject matter, there are references to hitting the highway with “Cadillac” (“Drive all night ‘til I wake up somewhere with the world behind me”) and “Running Out Of Road,” also not exactly fresh concepts. Four producers along with a bunch of veteran studio musicians craft these selections with each song crediting at least one co-writer, most having two and a few with three.
Thankfully, Jenkins boasts a distinctive, always believable, earthy presence to overcome some of these shortcomings. Her voice ranges from a grainy Stevie Nicks whisper in the title-track ballad, to a slicker, brassier Sheryl Crow-styled croon. The melodies generally stick. At least a few, like the terrific mid-tempo ballad “Running Out Of Road” and the zippy “You’ll Never Know,” sport instantly sing-along-able choruses that hang around long after the last notes have faded. The gripping closer “Blood” has the singer watching a friend self-destruct through drugs and drink (“Do another line of cocaine … ‘cause the whisky done worn off”) and the title track finds her grappling with forgiveness of the protagonist from a broken relationship.
There’s little question this would sound better with less overall sonic tinkering, rawer production and a grittier sound. But if we were to criticize all singer-songwriters for creating ear-pleasing commercial music with major label assistance, some of our most treasured icons like Tom Petty or Dolly Parton would be just as guilty.
Which leaves Lauren Jenkins as a capable, undoubtedly gifted new face that, perhaps with time and less help/interference from the star-making machinery, will reveal herself as an organic force to be reckoned with.