Rebecca Lynn Howard: “No Rules”

Rebecca Lynn Howard sounds like she probably wishes she was born forty years ago. It’s not that she sounds old– on the contrary, she sings with a voice of youthful vitality and feisty, energetic zeal. It’s not even that she sounds old-fashioned– her new record, No Rules, is an unmistakably modern production, slick in all the right places and loaded with bells and whistles. If anything, Howard and producer Michael A. Curtis have crafted a big, shiny monster of a modern-day soul/roots-rock record, one that covers more ground and sizzles with more raw, vital energy than just about any other record of its kind in 2008, even the excellent new country-rock platter from Kathleen Edwards. No, it’s neither the singer herself nor the production that makes her sound like a child of the late 60s or early 70s; it’s simply her record collection, which this album reveals to be a broad and eclectic assembly of rock, country, soul, funk, pop, and gospel. And even if the music didn’t tip you off, the liner notes would– Howard admits in them that this is her attempt at making an album that encompasses every side of her musical personality, and pays homage to all the influences and artists that made her who she is.

As it turns out, her impressive array of influences and musical interests is her greatest asset here– except, perhaps, for her killer voice– while her greatest shortcoming is the fact that, well, she really wasn‘t born three or four decades ago, even if he tastes happen to run two or three decades older than those of her peers. In other words, No Rules attempts to be an Americana tour de force, and sometimes it comes pretty close to succeeding based on its ambitions alone, but elsewhere Howard’s talents and years aren’t quite enough to make it work, and she comes across as a well-intentioned poseur more than anything else. Which isn’t to say that it’s a bad record at all, or an uneven one for that matter– No Rules is a consistently entertaining album, one that maintains its good-natured humor and high level of energy for the duration of its fourteen songs.

Actually, Howard’s good taste is so winning that the album’s best moments are its covers. The set opens with a blistering, swaggering, organ-drenched take on the soul classic “Shaky Ground,” and if Howard doesn’t quite have the grit or the experience to pull off the song’s biting anger, she’s still one heck of a funk singer, and her sheer passion for the song more than sells it. (Still, I’d love to hear someone like Bettye LaVette do this song!) Two tracks later, she does a bang-up job with “Do Right Woman- Do Right Man,” a vintage soul ballad and an impassioned plea for mutual respect. Finally, “We’re in This Love Together,” is a cheerfully sentimental R&B chestnut, performed as a duet with an uncredited male soul singer and performed with the kind of zeal that makes it an instant standout.

There are other great moments here– like the Stax/Volt horns on “New Twist on an Old Groove,” the gentle bluegrass ballad “The Life of a Dollar,” the driving rock of the scorching closing number, “Throw it Down”– but, curiously, it’s those three covers that illustrate not just her greatest strengths, but some of her greatest shortcomings. For one thing, she’s got a bit of a sentimental streak, which is putting it mildly, that leads to some awkward moments on a few of her originals, both musically and lyrically. Certainly one appreciates the sentiment of a song like “Soul Sisters,” which celebrates the common musical heritage of two otherwise different people, but it’s just a little too cheery for its own good. But the weakest songs here are the pop songs; apparently, Howard’s definition of pop if Celine Dion-styled ballads, and so a handful of cuts here are slowed-down, MOR yawners that sounds like unnecessary concessions to country radio, far too slick and schmaltzy to fit it on this otherwise stirring album. (Thankfully, Curtis never calls in the string section, but the effect if roughly the same.)

One could also complain that Howard is too good-natured even to bring herself to say the word “ass” on “New Twist on an Old Groove” (she sings the first phoneme and then lets it trail off into the ether), but at that point these criticisms become nitpicking. Howard is still a young artist, and if her youthfulness sometimes hinders her good intentions, it’s still more than enough to make this a winning, enjoyable album, one that impresses both with its ambition and its talent, and one that makes one eager to hear future releases from her when she gets just a tad more experience under her belt.

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