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Crystal Vision: Bowersox Wows On Debut LP

Lyndsey Parker
Reality Rocks

"Whatever happened to good old rock 'n' roll? Whatever became of rhythm and blues and soul?" Those are the opening lines off "American Idol" runner-up Crystal Bowersox's debut album, Farmer's Daughter. And they're pretty timely and appropriate musical questions. See, when Crystal first appeared on "Idol" this past season, for many viewers she evoked beloved bygone rock eras, whether it was the Lilith Fair heyday of the mid-'90s or Janis Joplin in her 1960s prime. There was just something raw, something real, about this dreadheaded hippie chick, this busker, this earth mama, who seemed so out of place--and yet so professional and at ease--performing on a shiny happy pop show like "Idol." Even in a season overpacked with guitar-strumming coffeehouse types, Crystal stood out, and music fans yearning for a return to a folksy female sound voted her all the way to the finale.

So now Crystal is preparing to release Farmer's Daughter, and I'm delighted to report that she's definitely still keeping it real, and that rumors of her working with an assembly line of hired hacks were greatly exaggerated. Of the LP's dozen tracks, only two of them--a cover of the Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth," and "Hold On," penned by ex-"Idol" judge Kara DioGuardi and Nickelback's Chad Kroeger--weren't written or co-written by Crystal. Additionally, eight of the album's cuts were penned solely by her, and two of them are pre-"Idol" compositions--both of these developments certainly are "Idol" firsts. Overall, it's a very strong album, and viewers who fell in love with Crystal's earthy and earnest "Idol" performances of Sheryl Crow, Alanis Morissette, Tracy Chapman, and Patti Griffin tunes will not be disappointed.

But that begs the question: How about the rest of the music-buying public? In a pop age when the charts are dominated by aggressively slick and sexualized fembots like Gaga, Rihanna, Ke$ha, and Katy, and a revamped Lilith tour is a box-office bust, does a farmer's daughter like Crystal stand a chance?

I say YES--if her label markets her as a country artist. Her album's rustic first track, "Ridin' With The Radio"--with its wailing harmonica, wistful longing for a simpler era, and twangy vocal--would definitely sound right at home on country radio; the rousing "On The Run" is almost reminiscent of Rascal Flatts' cover of "Life Is A Highway"; and her Americana-ish duet with her new groom, "Mason," has a pleasant Gram/Emmylou vibe to it. Many pop purists may not be digging this type of music these days--which is a darn shame, and maybe Crystal can change that--and there doesn't seem to be much of a place for "women in rock" right now, either...but considering how well bold, brassy country girls like Miranda Lambert, Gretchen Wilson, and Jennifer Nettles have fared lately, and how original country tough chick Loretta Lynn is being rediscovered and celebrated on a new tribute album, country fans should love what they hear on Farmer's Daughter. If Jive does its job properly promoting this album, Nashville could very well become the capital of the Mamasox Nation.

That being said, here's a breakdown of the album's 12 tracks, in all their Crystalized, countrified glory:

"Ridin With The Radio" - Written by Crystal and featuring background vocals by her musician husband, Brian Walker, this is a barnstorming opener, the perfect Saturday song for cruising dirt roads in a pickup truck. It actually sounds more country than most mainstream "country" songs these days, and it's a superb statement of intent: You slap this Southern-fried song on, and you just know this album is gonna rock. It features a swear word in the first verse, too, which is kind of badass.

"For What It's Worth" - This Buffalo Springfield cover doesn't expand much on the original--to lapse into Idolspeak, Crystal doesn't really "make it her own"--but her voice is as crystalline as ever. Dang, this woman can sing.

"Farmer's Daughter" - A pre-"Idol," self-penned ballad, this is a real cry-in-yer-beer tearjerker, tackling the subject of child abuse as unblinkingly and bravely and non-sugarcoatedly as 10,000 Maniacs' "What's The Matter Here?" or Suzanne Vega's "Luka." It definitely seems autobiographical, about an absentee mother who'd "come home with bourbon breath"; other convincingly, wincingly vitriolic lines include "All I ever wanted was you to take care of me," "When you broke my bones I told the school I fell down the stairs," and "I'm no farmer's daughter anymore, Mommy dear." Ouch. Kudos to Crystal for fighting to make this her first single instead of the more obvious original choice, "Hold On" (more on that tune later). The subject matter may not be the most radio-friendly (or friendly in general), which makes this single a risk...but like I said before, Crystal is badass. It takes guts to release a song like this one.

"Holy Toledo" - Another pre-"Idol" composition, this song holds the high honor of being the first original tune by a contestant to be featured on "Idol," during Season 9's homecoming episode. (Crystal also performed it once on the Idols Live Tour--another "AI" first.) Crystal's vocal here is searingly passionate, and Toledoans ought to be very proud. 

"Lonely Won't Come Around" - A co-write between Crystal, David Ryan Harris, and Alexandra Tamposi, this is, besides "Ridin'," the most upbeat song on Farmer's Daughter, and it's also my personal favorite track. It has the winsome, almost cutesy feel of KT Tunstall's "Suddenly I See" and a cheerful whistling refrain seemingly lifted straight out of Peter Bjorn & John's "Young Folks"--and after heavy hitters like the title track and "Holy Toledo," it's a refreshing, palate-cleansing change of pace to hear Crystal warble a lovey-dovey ditty about feeling like a "kid jacked up on sugar in a nursery school." My compliments to whoever selected the sequence of this album's tracklisting.

"Hold On" - Okay, this is the one song on the album with which I have a little bit of an issue. I find no fault with the vocal, of course, but as I mentioned earlier, this song was co-written by Chad Kroeger...and all Chad Kroeger songs sound EXACTLY THE SAME. Even when they're warbled by Crystal, whose voice is an undeniably more pleasant listen than Chad's, or by Kara DioGuardi (whose vocals were heard on a demo version that leaked earlier), Chad's waltz-tempo rock ballads are still way too interchangeably Nickelbackian for my tastes. This song would probably have more of a chance at radio than "Farmer's Daughter," but I'm still glad this isn't the first single. It just doesn't represent Crystal as well.

"On The Run" - Another country-rocker (self-penned as well), Crystal sounds damn sassy here. "I'm just looking to have some fun," she declares. It's nice to hear Crystal, who often comes across so serious and somber that some detractors have nicknamed her "Soursox," really cutting loose.

"Kiss Ya" - Who knew Crystal could be sexy? This flirty rocker is full of lusty longing (and swear words!), as she demands that the object of her affection pucker his lips and grope her hips. That Brian Walker is one lucky fellow.

"Speak Now" - This Crystal-penned bar ballad also has a country vibe, although it has precious little in common with the Taylor Swift song of the same title. It has a keening soulfulness to it, a tinge of gospel, a tinge of Motown, and a whole lot of Stonesiness and Black Crowesiness. When I imagine Crystal doing this as a duet with Chris Robinson, my head kind of explodes. Can that happen, please?

"Mine All Mine" - Love is a major, recurrent theme for this blissed-out newlywed. ("Just in time, you came into my life and now I'm fine," Crystal coos, presumably to her groom. Like I said, Brian sure is lucky.) This is a sweet slowdance song about the simple life--"Don't buy me diamonds, don't buy me pearls, don't try to shoot the moon or promise me the world," she sings--so I guess "Idol" didn't change this farmer's daughter all that much.  

"Mason" - A duet between Crystal and Brian, who also has a co-writing credit, here the smitten bride and groom goopily trade off lines about "building a life together." It would almost be cloying and annoying, if their gruff vocal harmonies and spare instrumentation didn't keep the production subtle overall. But seriously, guys: Get a room!

"Arlene" - A somewhat dark and downtempo album-closer, going out with a whimper not a bang, this song puts front-and-center the very thing that first captured America's attention: Crystal's gorgeous voice. I've actually never heard Crystal sound better than she does on this understated track. And hopefully soon many, many people will get to hear Crystal this way too, when Farmer's Daughter comes out December 14.

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