I've said this before, but I'll say it again: A couple of times a year, you get an album that puts all others in perspective, one that makes everything you heard recently that you thought was great sound merely good, everything you thought was good seem average, and everything average sound just plain bad. The Loretta Lynn-Jack White collaboration Van Lear Rose is that kind of curve-wrecking album -- a stone-cold classic if there ever was one, that rare record that will make you cry, laugh and rock, one that will make love sweeter or heartbreaks easier to bear.
And all this is coming from a Loretta Lynn fan. Sure, I dig the White Stripes and all that, but Jack White -- who produced and played guitar on this album -- had a hell of a lot more to prove to me here. I don't give a crap about any hipster cred Lynn may have accrued with this collabo -- like Cash, Dolly, Haggard, Willie and George, Loretta transcends all notions of hip as it is understood by city slickers. White knows this, and he sure as hell helped pull off a killer record, and not just by getting out of the way and letting Loretta do her thing.
First off, there's the sheer musical variety of the thing, from the unvarnished fiddle and foot-stomping of "High on a Mountain Top" to the Delta blues fury of the Elvis tribute "Have Mercy" to the positively Zeppelinesque fury of "Women's Prison." And on the pure country numbers like the title track, there's a soupy, reverb-laden mix that calls forth hard country's mid-20th-century glory days without sounding deliberately dated.
Then there's the White-Lynn vocal duet "Portland, Oregon," which deserves a paragraph of its own. The intro -- White's keening guitar over a bed of Patrick Keeler's rumbling toms and cymbal wash and the eerie pedal steel of Dave Feeny -- is simply a couple of minutes of some of the coolest music you'll ever hear. Then Loretta comes in, sounding five decades younger than her 68 years as she delivers her lyrics, which concern instant love over sloe gin fizzes by the pitcher. All this sonic perfection almost seems wasted on a "get drunk and screw" song, but it sure wouldn't if you were one of the parties involved. And hell, most of us have been there, and even the worst of those nights deserves a memorable song.
This is the first album in Lynn's 44-year career for which she wrote all the songs. Why so long? She doesn't put a false foot forward anywhere here. Save for the song about getting executed in a "Women's Prison," Loretta lived all these songs: the grinding childhood poverty and harrowing near-death experience of the utterly dysfunctional spoken-word "Little Red Shoes," the cheatin' husband revenge fantasy of "Mrs. Leroy Brown," the getting back at the gal who cheated with my husband revenge fantasy of "Family Tree," the forgiveness of the now-dead cheatin' husband of "Miss Being Mrs." And then, at last, the stoicism to not just claim but actually believe that "God Makes No Mistakes."
Neither did White or Lynn, at least where this album is concerned.
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