Album Review: Sara Evans – Stronger

Sara Evans

 Stronger

* * 1/2 

In the six years since Sara Evans released Real Fine Place, she’s appeared on Dancing With The Stars, powered through an ugly divorce, released a Greatest Hits album, a novel, remarried, and moved to Birmingham, Alabama. She enjoyed a top 15 hit with “As If” in 2007, and watched every other single she and her label released (“Some Things Never Change,” “Love You With All My Heart,” “Low,” and “Feels Just Like A Love Song”) tank. The latter was supposed to be the lead single from her My Place In Heaven album that got pushed back again and again. Her loosing streak turned around last fall when “A Little Bit Stronger” became her first significant hit in more than four years and her first top 10 since 2005’s “Cheatin'”. That long-awaited album was retitled Stronger and finally saw the light of day in early March.

“A Little Bit Stronger” was a welcomed return to form for Evans who seemed cast aside for boobalicous blondes half her age. Co-written by Lady A’s Hillary Scott, the song is a perfect mix of country charm and pop production suited for airplay. It’s appearance on the Country Strong soundtrack more than gave it a boost and the exposure it needed to make it big at radio. While wearing extremely thin after six months of repeated listenings, “A Little Bit Stronger” stated that Evans was back, in a big way.

But, unfortunately, she didn’t follow through with the rest of the album. For someone out of the game for four years, all we get is a ten track album consisting of eight new songs, a Rod Stewart cover, and a puzzling bluegrass version of “Born to Fly”? Stronger is an easy and very enjoyable listen but fails to stick with you because very few of the songs are remarkable let alone memorable. While it does retain more country arraignments than most mainstream releases, it’s safe and generic and does nothing to push the genre, let alone Evans’s career, forward.

The problem with the album is two-fold. In the past Evans has stunned with her ballads. Gone from Stronger are the sweeping story songs – “I Learned That From You,” “You’ll Always Be My Baby” that she executes so well. While they haven’t proven to fair well at radio (and “You” was never a single), such songs showcase the power of Evans’s vocal ability and add the grounding needed to root her music in substance. Also missing are those punchy songs that everyone loves so much. Where’s this album’s “Suds In The Bucket?” or “Born To Fly?” Nothing of that caliber exists here. While we do have an odd Bluegrass cover of “Born To Fly,” resurrecting your signature song in place of a new song of the same energy, doesn’t count.

But luckily for Evans, there are three distinct highlights – the infectious “Anywhere,” “What The Drink Cost Me,” and the Rod Stewart cover “My Heart Can’t Tell You No.” At least all three attempt to pull off something worthy of Evans’s talents. The cover of “No,” while not really country except for the prominent steel guitar, may be the best vocal of her while career. The overall selection of songs on this record may be far less than stellar, but it isn’t like she’s not working hard here. It’s just when the lyrical content of a song is awful, there’s nothing you can do to elevate it.

That logic is never more evident than on the opening couplet of “Life Without Losing:” “My nails are chipped and my hair’s in knots/And my jeans are ripped and I just can’t stop.” It’s by and far the worst line on the whole album. To hear Evans’s sing those words is cringeworthy. Why is one of the most underrated and under-appreciated female singers wasting their talents on drivel like that? The Nashville machine of dumbing down is clearly at play here, and to see Evans become its latest victim is down right sad. If she desires a CMA Female Vocalist trophy, she isn’t showing it with lyrics like that.

But there is some good news – Stronger finds Evans still in a very strong voice and Nathan Chapman, known for producing Taylor Swift, keeps the arraignments from fighting her vocals. They also air on the side of country, which is rare in 2011 Nashville. Evans doesn’t hide her twang as much as embrace it, and the end result is far more authentic to her roots. It’s enjoyable to hear a well placed fiddle and steel guitar on a mainstream country record. These are pop/country songs mind you, but it is nice. Stronger builds more on the foundation of “As If” than “Suds in the Bucket,” but there are worse places to construct from. Believe me.

While it isn’t the slam dunk we all hoped it would be, Stronger is more than an enjoyable listen. It just doesn’t hold up once you’ve turned it off. Most of the songs and hooks aren’t ear worms and none are likely to become legendary, but it’s great to have Evans back after all these years. Let’s hope she doesn’t wait as long to release her next album.

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2 Responses to “Album Review: Sara Evans – Stronger”

  1. Brian Says:

    Love it! I agree Sara Evans still has some work to do in rediscovering her voice and her niche in country music. I was a big fan ten years ago, when she came out with “Born to Fly”, “Saints and Angels”, etc. I was a little disappointed by “Suds in the Bucket” but the current single “A Little Bit Stronger” definitely renewed my enthusiasm for her music — it is appropriately mature, uplifting, and I can listen to it all the way through more than once, which puts it a cut above some songs on country radio lately.

    • Jono Says:

      Thanks, Brian! I’ve always enjoyed her music and agree that her Born To Fly era work is her best. But I also really love “Suds In The Bucket.” It can seem a little cheesy, but it’s a great story song in that tradition of country music.

      Isn’t great when a song comes along you can listen to more than once? Although I have gotten tired of it, I really do like “A Little Bit Stronger.” It’s taken awhile but it seems to be clicking with radio and fans – it’s #4 on Billboard this week. I’m glad to see Sara Evans back where she belongs.

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