|Photo by Russ Harrington|
Van Lear Rose is an album of 13 songs explosively written and sung by Loretta Lynn. Jack White, of the White Stripes, produced it. Eric McConnell recorded the sessions, on an 8-track board in an old house in Nashville; the mix, by White and Stuart Sikes, was done in Memphis. A young rock quartet, all of whose members contribute percussion and background vocals and are billed on the CD as the Do Whaters — pedal-steel/slide/dobro player Dave Feeny, drummer Patrick Keeler, bassist Jack Lawrence, plus White on electric and acoustic guitar as well as organ and piano — play the music. In today’s parade of disparate album releases, Van Lear Rose occupies its own dimension of accomplishment and achievement. It sounds and feels as though it fell to Earth, somehow. From who knows where.
It originates, in fact, from one magical and feisty place: Loretta Lynn’s mind. It does not come from the cult of lo-fi recording, or the cranky implementation of traditionalism, or retro dreaming, or indie-rock immaturity, or a distaste for contemporary country, or the opportunities for American icons après–Johnny Cash/Rick Rubin. Van Lear Rose obliterates agendas, lavishing everything on Loretta Lynn’s musical and narrative ideas and how she sings them to extraordinary life. At 69, she is in rip-roaring voice, evincing none of the tendencies toward the operatic common to Nashville vocal peers such as George Jones or the late Tammy Wynette. In Lynn’s fast soprano, things are just powerfully what they are — sad, funny, horrible, weird, mundane, transcendent, sexy — and any combination of events and emotions seems possible.
The tracks are not folky; they never shrink from melodies, choruses, rhythms and parts that seek to forge rich and entertaining sonic impressions. Lynn writes with timeless country-hit instincts, the kind where country songwriters and producers and singers shoot for their Nashville usages to blossom with as much full-on arrest as, say, classic-era Motown. Lynn sees no reason that she cannot pack her most serious concerns inside that down-home format. And although White eschews the slick aesthetic that often accompanies major-impact goals, he doesn’t let that prevent him from helping Lynn in her quest for fireworks.
In “Portland Oregon,” the collection’s one Lynn-White duet, Lynn’s songwriting forgoes traditional verse-chorus-verse; structurally, the song miniaturizes and repeats a ’60s/’70s AM pop-rock wash of psychedelic vocal riffing. White, brilliantly scaling down his Led Zep passions, is right there and more with the arrangement. Lynn knows that the fun, the aural dynamite, of the song comes from her following a couple of blown-through lines like “Well Portland Oregon and sloe-gin fizz/If that ain’t love then tell me what is” with a couple of hungrily voiced, bluesy uh-huhs, and White knows that these brief melodies, strung together and compressed in proper rhythm and with surrounding guitar dramatics, compensate for the missing verse-chorus-verse.
When Lynn and White return to conventional song form, with a first-class honky-tonk ballad about emotional and romantic disconnection titled “Trouble on the Line,” they proceed from the reservoir of musical power that they have established so solidly on “Portland Oregon,” “Have Mercy” and other rockers. The same thing is true of Lynn’s one acoustic performance, “Miss Being Mrs.,” in which she laments the death of her late husband.
As a collection, the album has an eerie grip on sequencing and context. One of the most transporting moments is the percussive transition, soothed by steel guitar, at the end of the philosophical ballad “God Makes No Mistakes” into “Women’s Prison,” where Lynn sings the story of a woman behind bars for shooting her cheating “darling.”
Lynn is constantly singing stories on Van Lear Rose; her storytelling is the heart of it. On the title song, the subject is the courtship of her parents; on “Little Red Shoes,” a sublime track with elements of Robert Altman and Andy Warhol in which she speaks behind trippy guitar music White wrote, it’s childhood memories. On “High on a Mountain Top,” in what could be the album’s greatest single piece, there’s coal-mining and fiddle-playing Uncle Joe, but there’s also Lynn’s observation that, from her vantage point, “The rest of the world’s like a little bitty spot.” Listening to Van Lear Rose, the rest of the world can sure sound like one.
LORETTA LYNN | Van Lear Rose (Interscope)