Sheryl Crow: “100 Miles from Memphis”
Two years after the quirky, idiosyncratic pop of Detours— an aptly-named collection of side trips down back alleys and into weird new directions– Sheryl Crow returns with an album that sounds, on paper, like it might be the thematically focused, sonically unified antithesis to that record. And in some ways it is. 100 Miles from Memphis is Crow’s much talked-about Southern soul album, a collection of blue-eyed belters done in the classic Hi style that identifies itself by its very title as a kissing cousin to Dusty in Memphis. But Detours was not just a detour, and Crow remains an artist whose muse is too restless to do a straight genre homage. The record, of course, is much better for it.
If anything, 100 Miles is a sort of spiritual tribute to the Memphis soul and R&B Crow grew up with in the 70s, an album that conveys much of the sensibility and the mindset of those albums without painting itself into the corner of strict emulation. It’s clear from the outset that Crow considers this to be a vital extension of her own art– not, to return to the Detours metaphor, a side trip– and that the album is as much about exploration as it is winning radio hits. Opener “Our Love is Fading” is a thumping, horn-drenched rave that positively drips with Southern sassiness and crosses well over the six-minute mark; in this declaration of sound and intent, Crow is willing to take her time and ride the groove until it exhausts itself. But the very next song shows just how loosely she’s taking this Memphis soul thing: “Eye to Eye,” with guest guitar work from Keith Richards, is a genial reggae groove, basically unrelated to the 70s Memphis sound yet capturing its light, easy-going vibe. Sonically it shouldn’t work, but Crow folds it into the project nicely simply by virtue of the fact that this album is more about capturing an era’s spirit, not the specifics of its sound.
And yet, when she wants to, she captures that sound ably; give much of the credit to Doyle Bramhall II and Justin Stanley, who produced the set along with Crow and prove themselves more than capable of bringing vintage sounds into a modern context. They can emulate the Willie Mitchell sound with spot-on results, as on the album’s third song, a pleading, spiritual love song in the classic Al Green vein; that the song is a cover of Terrence Trent D’Arby’s “Sign Your Name,” recorded in the late 80s, and features the thoroughly-modern Justin Timberlake on harmony vocals, is a fun wrinkle that lends added depth to this project’s very nature.
And there are more wrinkles along the way, Crow and her producers never straying from their fundamental palette yet ensuring that the proceedings are more about inspiration than outright homage. Even amidst the brassy Memphis horns and lilting grooves, the sun-kissed harmonies and the soulful swelling of strings, the songs are flavored with gospel overtones and pop instincts, hippie sing-alongs and organ-drenched funk workouts. The songs, particularly the ballads, often dabble in nostalgia, but the album is an act of synthesis, not historical recreation, something that isn’t restricted to the sound but is part of the actual writing, as Crow not only brings different styles together under her unifying aesthetic but captures a sort of overarching worldview, as well– one that’s rooted in a sort of positivism that makes the breakup tunes warmly melancholy instead of out-and-out depressing, and finds a couple of the songs reaching into social awareness. These songs aren’t about politics per se, but are instead positive-thinking odes to activism, and if they’re not as specific or as hard-hitting as, say, a Marvin Gaye song, they harken to the same era, where soul music went hand-in-hand with street-level social upheaval, songs of activism with songs of love and heartache.
And to say that they’re not particularly heavy or profound is to miss the point, by the way. This is a soulful pop album for summer, an album that’s more about feeling good than delivering a grand message, and on that level it works exceedingly well. Nowhere is it clearer than on the album’s final track, a deliriously enthusiastic cover of the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back.” Crow delivers it in the same way she delivers most of the album– not with an emulation of classic soul singing but with her own girlish energy and enthusiasm, as though she’s reconnecting to a particular shade of joy she remembers from her youth. It’s what makes the song a cheerful rush of wonder and emotion, and the album itself a feel-good paean to sunny vibes and sweet, sweet soul.