The fifth album by country singer Faith Hill opens with a loud crash of drums, a throbbing electric bass, and a screeching electric guitar. The song is called "Free," and it's about liberating oneself from the chains of the past. The point is obvious: Hill wants to shed her Nashville image and assert herself as a Celine Dion-style pop singer. It's out with the fiddles and steel guitars, in with the synthesizers and drum loops.
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There's nothing inherently wrong with that. Shelby Lynne has charted a similar path from twangy country to blue-eyed soul, and her equally talented sister, Allison Moorer, recently released an album (Miss Fortune) that owes more to the Rolling Stones than to Tammy Wynette. Hill isn't the first country singer to move toward pop, and she certainly won't be the last.
No, the problem with Cry isn't the concept; it's the execution. Hill, who sings in a bland, vanilla-flavored voice, just isn't up to the task. She emotes with diva-like abandon on one rock power ballad after another, but the results are more laughable than soulful. It doesn't help that Hill has enlisted Bekka Bramlett, daughter of legendary '70s husband-and-wife duo Delaney and Bonnie, to sing background vocals on several tracks. (Bramlett also co-wrote two songs.) Like Lynne and Moorer, Bramlett has a soulful country-pop voice that works in just about any musical setting, and her presence on Cry only serves to call attention to Hill's vocal limitations.
With a few exceptions, the songs on Cry are directed squarely at the Lifetime Network set. In "Beautiful," Hill tells her man, ³I love how soft you touch my skin/Like you're touching the wings of a butterfly/I wish we could just lock ourselves away in a room/Where there was no such thing as time.² Hallmark couldn't have said it better. The supposedly confessional "This Is Me" finds Hill revealing her "true self," which is odd, given that she didn't even write the song. ³I laugh at silly movies,² she informs us, ³tear up when I see babies/And I'm stubborn as a stone/I criticize my body/I wonder if I'm ready/to ever be alone/Oh! I'm just like everybody else.² Right. In "Back to You," a heartbroken Hill vows, ³I would walk the world, I'd cross the sea/I'd journey beyond the moon/I'd try anything, go anywhere/to find my way back to you.² Hill sings even the most banal lyrics on Cry with an angst-ridden, overly emotional delivery, as if we won't notice how insipid they are. But let the record show: These songs are bad -- really bad.
Musically, Cry is slick and overproduced; it's drenched in layer upon layer of carefully premeditated studio polish. Even the guitar solos sound as if they've been worked out well in advance. The problem with all of this is that it makes Cry seem like nothing more than Hill's calculated, market-driven quest for pop divahood. Forget about the fact that the album has virtually nothing to do with country; it has virtually nothing to do with music.