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Album review: Sheryl Crow's '100 Miles From Memphis'

July 19, 2010 |  5:19 pm

Sheryl_crow_240_ Sheryl Crow’s seventh studio album is a summer skinny-dip into the retro-soul sound that has updated ’60s nostalgia for the post hip-hop generation. With a title invoking the distance between Crow’s Missouri hometown and the home of Elvis and Al Green, it’s more an exploration of the rhythm-and-blues diaspora than a straightforward re-creation of any particular Southern sound.

There’s a little Stax in the horns, a little Motown in the backing vocals, and quite a bit of Al Green and Willie Mitchell’s Hi Records simmer in the grooves producers Doyle Bramhall II and Justin Stanley cultivate. But Crow also throws in a reggae cut (with guitar from England’s favorite classic-rock rude boy, Keith Richards), a couple of nonspecifically political anthems that Ben Harper would have been happy to have written, and a duet with Citizen Cope on that blue-eyed soul slacker’s own “Sideways” that nicely taps into his heavy mellowness. Justin Timberlake also has a cameo, singing backup on a version of Terence Trent D’Arby's late-’80s seduction “Sign Your Name.”

This should all add up to an excellent outing, but Crow’s effort has problems. Nearly every song overstays its welcome; what may have felt like a bunch of great jams in the studio grows tedious over the course of 12 tracks. Crow sings with sensitivity throughout, but she just doesn’t have the fat tone that would have lifted the more up-tempo songs higher; best among those is “Long Road Home,” which goes more in a country direction. The bonus track that has her reprising the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back” convincingly demonstrates the Michael-like tone that caused the late superstar to hire her as a backup singer long ago, but the goofy backing vocals leaves one longing for Jermaine and the other brothers.

Crow has said that she wanted to make a sexier album than “Detours,” which she recorded in the aftermath of both breast cancer and her breakup with cyclist Lance Armstrong. Indeed, “Memphis” works best when she brings the rhythm down and the focus in close. “Stop,” a Shelby Lynne-style showstopper, features one of her most expressive recent vocals, and the moody “Roses and Moonlight” tantalizingly hints at what Crow might have offered if she’d made a proper blues album instead of this one. Now that’s a genre that actually needs reviving. Crow might do a service to her fans, herself, and pop history by taking that dustier back road next time.

— Ann Powers

Sheryl Crow
“100 Miles From Memphis”
Two stars (Out of four)

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