Yep Roc Records
4 stars (out of 5)
Long time fans can be forgiven for believing they were unlikely to ever hear new material from June Carter’s first-born.
Going back to the late 1970s, Carlene Carter has been at her strongest performing songs — whether from her pen or others’ — that seemed to resonate with her on a personal level, take “Love is Gone,” “Alabama Morning,” and “Appalachian Eyes,” to name three from the initial English pub rock-influenced phase of her career.
During the Nashville hit years, for every “I Fell in Love” or “Every Little Thing” there was a “Me and the Wildwood Rose,” “My Dixie Darling,” “The Sweetest Thing,” or “Unbreakable Heart.”
On her first album in over than a decade, CC displays the passion that has consistently been present in her country-rock hybrid while instilling depth that was frequently missing from her chart hits. Stronger has more than a little of the spirit of her Carter family ancestors woven within the tracks.
Having spent years out of the spotlight, Carter started to claw her way back with a well-received acting stint as her mother in the stage production Wildwood Flowers: The June Carter Story. Stronger was originally available as a fan club disc, and has been revitalized for wide-spread release with John McFee at the production helm. McFee also overdubbed new instrumentation throughout the album.
Carter’s voice is huskier than on Little Acts of Treason, her major label swan song. But she displays control and sensitivity throughout, never over-extending her voice.
The uncompromisingly honest treatment of “On To You” is enough to signify that at fifty-plus, Carter can give those half her age something to consider. “To Change Your Heart” would fit nicely on any of Carter’s mid-’90s albums; it is a mid-tempo country shuffle with heartbreak at its core: “Well-meaning friends don’t understand why I can’t let go and start again.”
While Carter exposes herself emotionally throughout Stronger, the album’s mood isn’t dense or bleak. Lightness shines through although the two-stepping splash of her ’90s recordings is absent.
“I’m So Cool,” originally recorded on the Nick Lowe-produced Musical Shapes, is as lively as it was almost thirty years ago. Attention to phrasing and delicate instrumentation allows the gentle love song “Spider Lace” to standout as a highlight; McFee’s pedal steel contributions provide a honky tonk element.
The recording isn’t perfect. On “Break My Little Heart in Two,” Carter’s vocal is too far down in the mix; the song had potential to be Stronger’s radio song, but this production decision weakens what could have been a defining performance. “It Takes One To Know Me,” originally written for Johnny Cash, isn’t the most dynamic song in Carter’s catalog, and husband number four Jon Breen’s duet vocal is non-descript. Still, the heartfelt intention behind the song rescues it.
Finally, all the stops are pulled out for the album’s closer, the intense title track. “Stronger” doesn’t mince words, and Carter’s mature performance of the clichéd lyric (“What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger”) elevates the song. When one considers from where Carter was for much of the last thirteen years- addiction, career bankruptcy, criminal charges, family losses- June, Johnny, sister Rosey, ex Howie Epstein- “this hell-raising angel” is entitled to look back with contented perspective. “Stronger” should become Carter’s signature song.
Not only the Comeback of the Year, Stronger may serve as a candidate for Comeback of the Decade.
“There’s grace in forgiveness for angels in flight,” a lyric from her elegy for her sister, may be suitable for Carter herself. Without apologizing for her past, Carlene Carter has documented the challenges, celebrations, and lessons of a hard-lived life on Stronger.
by Donald Teplyske