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4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Crow reveals more of her musical roots and stays on the right side of the credibility line, 24 July 2010
This review is from: 100 Miles From Memphis (Audio CD)
Much like an old valve amplifier, that takes some time and patience to give of its best when first switching on, this new offering from Sheryl Crow has taken me more than a couple of listens to understand and begin to appreciate. I almost wish I could have discovered it on vinyl rather than modern day digital - yes it's that retro.

In press interviews, Crow describes this album's direction as one she has never before explored. That may well be true from her perspective and experience of recording it. But the truth is that many of these songs would probably be fairly easily stowed away on some of her previous records, without much of a raised eyebrow. However, that's not to deny that something new is definitely in the air on 100 Miles From Memphis.

The musical influences at work here - Stax, Mowtown, deep south blues rock and soul - have always been inextractible from Crow's own musical DNA, but have seldom been felt more purely than here. She has clearly benefitted from handing over the co-producer reins to Doyle Bramhall II - who has written songs recorded by Clapton in recent years, as well as playing second guitar in ole slowhand's live band - and who has evidently had a close involvement in perfecting the guitar lines, melodies and backing vocals on ...Memphis.

I have no doubts about Crow's sincerity as a musician, but her problem is that she can appear at times too manufactured, too glossy and slick. Fans of hers from the nineties commonly argue that the songs in recent years have become too polished. The truth is that even Leaving Las Vegas was pretty painstakingly produced, it was simply more artful in appearing loose and organic. 100 Miles from Memphis sounded quite shocking to me on first listen - I mistook the dancy, sassy soulfulness for Sheryl having wandered into bland pop commercialism.

The bubblegum feelgood pop soul of the first single to be taken off the album, Summer Day, is so sweet it could be off a Coke commercial. I hope they don't get their hands on these songs, becuase songs like this came before there were products to sell, and our classic musical heritage was cynically used for that purpose. Summer Day is such a deceptively sophisticated song. It really grooves along like a Marvin Gaye or Curtis Mayfield track, full of beautiful arrangements, and sublime musicianship. I am loving it - but didn't on first, or even third hearing, which is pretty true of how I approached most of the tracks here.

Let's take a quick skip through the rest of the album... Opener, Our Love is Fading, has become a real grower too. It's Sheryl doing the Four Tops or The Supremes, it has a mid sixties mowtown feel about it. Its the kind of track Paul Weller has a radio friendly hit with every so often.

Eye to Eye is the track which evidently has guitar contributions from Keith Richards. I have to confess, I wouldn't know it's Keef on chops , especially as these are reggae chops, and seriously wonder whether they didn't get too stoned one night in the studio and write his name on the wrong tape box. The irony is that there are several other tracks here that would have made so much more sense for him to play on, such as Roses and Moonlight, which starts out based around the Blind Faith riff of Had to Cry Today, and ends up in several minutes of fantastic Emotional Rescue / Gimme Shelter-like jamming... surely that's Keith playing guitar??!

Sign Your Name - yes the old eighties Terence Trent Darby hit - is pretty good, slowed down to a sultry burn of a groove, and Justin Timberlake adds some great backing vocals. It's got an Al Green vibe going on.

Long Road Home is one of the most easily smuggled tracks onto any other Crow album - it's a gospel type track, of which Crow has recorded many through the years. Not bad at all, but nothing truly remarkable. Say What You Want is a Stephen Stills, Love the One You're With, sounding protest song, and it could have come from Detours, her last proper album.

I'm going to fast forward a few tracks now to what I think currently to be the standout song on the album - the achingly beautiful Sideways, one of Sheryl's greatest 'lost love' songs. This is a duet of sorts, with someone called Citizen Cope, who has a fantastic voice, and who wrote the track - he inspires Sheryl's best vocal performance of the album, in my opinion. This song would probably be a massive hit if Alicia Keys released it, but it would be great if Sheryl had the hit though, she deserves it. Great production on this track too - a string arrangement to die for.

The title track 100 Miles from Memphis reminds me a bit of that old Womack and Womack hit, Footsteps (remind me baby of you!). But it also has a Stonesy swagger going on too - was Mick doing some whoo whoo backing vocals here?!It is classic Sheryl Crow, and I think it will bring a smile to the faces of those who most enjoyed her early road movie type songs, you know, when she used to ride with a vending machine repair man...

For me the album ends with another strong track, Roses and Moonlight. Sheryl name checks Delaney and Bonnie as some of her early influences, and this has that late sixties rock vibe to it - Clapton will love it. And so will you hopefully! It's a bit like an early Steve Miller Band song, and there's some great band jamming towards the end.

The last track, more like an encore really, is a very faithful cover of the Jackson Five's I Want You Back. It may seem like an odd choice to those who weren't aware that Crow first came to prominance as Michael Jackson's backing singer in the mid eighties. It's a nod in the direction of a tribute to him, and given the Mowtown dance feel going on for some of this record, fits on quite neatly. It also punches home the fact that Crow has a pretty amazing vocal range that never seems to be a strain.

So there you have 100 Miles from Memphis. Not a 5 star album in my opinion, but I am confident that at least six of these tracks are up there with some of the best things Sheyl Crow has released, and maybe I'll feel the same about a few more in another few listens.

It could end up being her most successful album for years if enough people catch on.
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