Album Review: Caitlin Rose – Own Side Now

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There are two very distinct Nashvilles. Obviously, there’s the mainstream scene full of Lady Antebellum types, often referred to as “the industry.” It’s descended from the country music of the past, but most of its artists—both the successes and the hopefuls—are more forward-looking than backwards-looking. Then there’s the underground, a diverse group of artists from Lambchop to Those Darlins who seem perfectly happy on the periphery. Playing the city’s smaller clubs and releasing through the smaller labels, most have a firm grasp of the musical past as more immediate than the present and without the carrot of radio play, they are freer to indulge their individual interests and influences.

Not long ago, Caitlin Rose might have fit squarely in the former camp: Her mother is Liz Rose, a songwriter who has penned hits for Taylor Swift, Billy Gilman, and Trisha Yearwood. Furthermore, Caitlin has a sweet, clear voice that would sound commanding over compressed guitars and a strong backbeat. However, with the industry sounding more rock than country, and with Caitlin writing devastating break-up songs on her full-length debut, Own Side Now, she’s deeply entrenched in the latter camp and sounds quite comfortable and stimulated there.

Working with producer Mark Nevers (Lambchop, Charlie Louvin), Caitlin has a good handle on country history, both distant and recent. Her songs—mostly self-penned, with a few co-writes—draw from the spry near-pop melodies of ‘60s hits as well as from the superlatively laidback vibe of ’70s AM gold. That sound makes a good setting for her lyrical sentiments about a particularly disheartening relationship: “Who’s gonna want me when I’m just somewhere you’ve been,” she sings on the muted “Own Side,” supported by sympathetic backing vocals and a concerned piano. Caitlin crafts such heartbreaker lines regularly, and her cutting frankness lends these songs exceptionally high stakes.

At times, her plucky phrasing and precise enunciation recall a much more recent artist—namely, Zooey Deschanel of She & Him. It can be distracting on “For the Rabbits” and “New York,” portraying Caitlin as a young artist still learning how to assimilate and synthesize her musical loves. Even so, she shows a lot more personality on Own Side Now than most experienced vocalists can muster, with a quick wit and a valuable talent for finding the humor in even the darkest predicaments: Whether fashioning a back-in-the-saddle metaphor about love (“Learning to Ride”), smoking her way through a relationship (“Shanghai Cigarettes”), or recalling a bad break-up (pick a song), she’s never so blue she can’t crack a joke or a smile.

That pointed self-possession keeps Own Side Now from lapsing into bleak self-pity or oppressive despair. Instead, Caitlin strikes a lively, natural balance between light and dark that distinguishes her from so many of her local contemporaries.

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