Dawn Landes - Sweet Heart Rodeo
In Otis Redding's Tramp there's that legendary lover's spat where bratty Carla Thomas mocks our hero, “You're country, you straight from the Georgia Woods. You wear overalls, and you need a haircut. Tramp!!” to which Otis coolly replies “that's good”. Well Kentucky Girl Dawn Landes, like The Love Man, may be 'country' by origin but where she's heading, well that could be somewhere else.
At first glance, Landes' third album Sweet Heart Rodeo finds her eating squirrel (not a metaphor) at the same banquet as Laura Cantrell, Tift Merritt or Kathleen Edwards, but scratch a little deeper and we're closer to Eels than Squirrels. Like the Eels, Rodeo shows sparks of subversion beneath its silk neckscarf. A snap of the spurs, a Trojan horse in the herd. Even when you suspect you're spending more time on the mechanical bull in the bar than wrestling the real thing, Rodeo is clearly facing the right direction.
Generally, and to paraphrase Larry David, Sweet Heart Rodeo is “purdy, purdy good”. Opener Young Girl doesn't wait for an invite but boots open the screen door with a 1-2-3-4 aiming to “swing a punch that blinds you”. It's Chris Isaak with his foot on the gas. Keep those doggies rollin', time is short, “Time's a rodeo”.
Lead single Romeo is all hopskotch-kool and candy sunbeams, “I don't owe my soul to no Romeo” she protests unconvincingly. Landes' men are rogues, but they're mostly redeemable. It's no easy task for someone to carp on about their “baby” and not make you want to drink bleach. The power of country my friends, a mysterious magic. The littlest hobo of Wandering Eye also spins a tipsy waltz with authentic southern swagger, its golden touch being the Johnny Cash-style recap in the middle-eight, a country-cliché I fall for everytime.
The breathless Money In The Bank flutters like Sheryl Crow spraypainted dayglo with Yellow Submarine brass, whilst Clown bounces astride a bargaintastic Bontempi beat. It's charming, refreshingly unpretentious and strides like summer through Sesame Street. The sunshine burns a little though - Little Miss Holiday practically pirouettes around the word 'twee'. You'll feel inclined to do something macho after listening to Sweet Heart Rodeo. Like chopping down a tree, shooting a Deer or explaining the offside rule.
It's a pair of beauties which truly spotlight Landes' potential for taking best in show. Sweetheart of the Rodeo - the title a tip o' the stetson to Country pioneers The Byrds – is all spaghetti western smoulder 'n' cigarette glow. It's infectious comic-book country with a “little girl”, a “no damn good” daddy and the trail of destruction he leaves behind. Mr Tarantino, this one's for you. The rosette though is pinned to the swoonsome moonlit twinkles of Brighton. “All your lights are shining, lead me out to the sea”. A natural beauty. A French horn, a cello and a solitary kiss on the cheek and “nothing more”. It shattered my cold, cold heart into a billion crystal snowflakes. “I'll be flying, flying” Landes coos and lifts your spirits faster than a giant balloon. At the barndance, beneath the mirrorball, that's where I'll be.
This new Dawn fades elegantly with All Dressed In White, a dreamy UFO pulse over a shadowy funky drummer loop and our blue Kentucky girl floating into the night. Heavens above! A change of speed, a change of style indeed. It's these unexpected flashes of playfulness that may turn a few country-fearing listeners in Landes' direction. It's the sound of rules being broken (albeit tastefully) and hey, isn't that what the best country sounds like?
It's to Landes' credit that the rummest tracks are the two covers. Dance Area ain't nothin' to write home about; a slim yarn of a buckle bunny gushing over her “broke little bunny” and finding diamonds on the dancefloor. Think Into The Groove with haystacks. Only when I'm dancing can I feel this free, etc. Love is an 'interesting' skinny dip into Peyote lake but left me cold. It conjures a Day In The Life-style gonzo freakout, all kazoos and ghost trains, but feels a bit, well, daft. Still I try not to laugh and politely applaud the effort if not the delivery.
There's no doubting Landes' songwriting or that delicate angelic voice, but Sweet Heart Rodeo's wings feel clipped, caged. It's a classy, consistent record but crushingly slight. Nearly every song is begging for a minute or two longer on the playground but all get called in early. I felt like I was buck-a-roo'd just when I was enjoying myself. That said, this Southern-fried Cinderella has my attention and I'm convinced at least that 'live and unleashed' the wild horses of Sweet Heart Rodeo would truly run free and knock me for (more than) six.