On first inspection, the seventh studio album from Sheryl Crow, 100 Miles From Memphis, seems to tick all the boxes. Its a trip down a musical memory lane, referencing the Memphis soul the singer grew up with. Crow was raised in Kennett, Missouri, which neatly happens to lie this round sum distance from the soul city. The record has a mix of originals and covers expertly played and lovingly styled but lacking an essential individuality. Its a less satisfying back to roots experience as you sense that Crows vocals really belong to a different emotional home.
The album runs to over an hour and theres nothing on it under four minutes. Yet most songs would benefit from less indulgent run ons. There have been much better, and sadly ignored, white soul albums of late, notably Kristina Trains Spilt Milk. Maybe its because Crows range doesnt quite convey the feeling that comes with real soul, or that the album strives at the same time for a feel good vibe, that 100 Miles From Memphis struggles to convince. Picking out selected tracks demonstrates this dichotomy.
The opener Our Love Is Fading is pure pastiche, full of borrowed phases, and its brassy uptempo treatment rather jars with the downbeat lyrics. The radio-friendly single Summer Day works much better. Its pleasantly laid back and has an engaging simplicity. The reggae flavoured Eye to Eye mixes signature horns with some oddly annoying keys phrases and a lot of nah-nahing. The song has one Keith Richards guesting, though hes a bit hidden in the mix. Long Road Home has some equally irritating horn licks that recall the worst of Mark Ronson, blurring the lines between authenticity and imitation.
Peaceful Feeling sounds like a song youve heard all too often before. Theres an odd disconnection throughout much of the album that hints again that Sheryl Crows voice is not really suited to this kind of material. The Terence Trent DArby classic Sign Your Name sees Crow dueting with Justin Timberlake who brings his usual smooth brand of soul to the proceedings, yet the treatment doesnt really move the song on and you think, why do this?
Sheryl Crow is heard to better effect on two concurrent ballads: Stop, for which she takes sole writing credit and the Citizen Cope cover, Sideways which has Cope himself on dual vocals. The stop the world I want to get off message of the former song seems closer to the kind of social commentary that Crow has traded in over her career. The record ends with a cover of I Want You Back by the Jackson Five, with a dedication for Michael with love. Sheryl Crow, of course, was once a backing singer to MJ. Instrumentally, and somewhat surprisingly vocally, the one-take bonus track is given a really faithful treatment, and its difficult to criticise what is clearly a homage from the heart.
Memphis is a world apart from Crows last album, Detours, so I just played Always On Your Side from Wildflower for comparison and the jury doesnt need to be out for long to conclude that the new offering doesnt hold a candle to the country tinged torch balladry of the former. Crows early albums, Tuesday Night Music Club and Sheryl Crow, equally still hold plenty of delights from the lazy vibe of All I Wanna Do to the country Stones grunge of If It Makes You Happy. I suggest an investment in back catalogue before parting with serious money for Memphis.