CDs from Asleep at the Wheel, featuring Leon Rausch, and Sheryl Crow
‘100 Miles From Memphis’ (A&M) Grade: C+
If the title didn’t tip you off, then the eruption of horns and the pervasive background vocalists on opening track “Our Love Is Fading” ought to do it: “100 Miles From Memphis” is Sheryl Crow’s soul record. From the unlikely cover of Terence Trent D’Arby’s “Sign Your Name” — with a nod to contemporary R&B in the form of a Justin Timberlake guest appearance — to the album’s bonus cover of the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back,” “100 Miles to Memphis” packs in all the flourishes you’d expect from an old-school soul record.
Aside from a pair of latealbum ballads — the dull “Stop” and the reasonably animated Citizen Cope cover “Sideways” — it’s Crow in maximum Mavis Staples mode. She belts it out over saxophones, strings, gospel voices, blasting trumpets — including, on “Peaceful Feeling” from longtime Austin player Ephraim Owens — and a lot of B3 organ.
That’s a logical development for Crow, who’s worked with Tina Turner, served as a backing vocalist for Michael Jackson and grew up in Missouri, within spitting distance of the center of southern soul. And she’s enlisted the right players on “100 Miles From Memphis,” including cowriters and producers Justin Stanley and Doyle Bramhall II, who also go to bat as guitarists, percussionists and vocalists. Even Keith Richards pops by to jam on “Eye to Eye.”
But while “100 Miles From Memphis” is always cleanly produced and ably performed, it lacks the sparkle and energy of a quality soul record, always feeling too cautious and sanitized by half. The nearly constant female backing vocals sound like they were excerpted from Eric Clapton at the lowest point of his 1990s adult-contemporary doldrums. And all the rock-solid instrumentation and production in the world can’t make Crow into the kind of throaty crooner the material requires — a shortfall never more pronounced than on her cover of “I Want You Back,” one of the finest pop songs ever written and consequently a difficult number to bring anything new to. Crow’s sugar-sweet voice aspires to reach the howl of soul’s greatest female singers but never quite gets there. — Patrick Caldwell Sheryl Crow performs at the Backyard on Aug. 28.