Singin’ the trues

Martina McBride shows what she’s got
May 22, 2007 11:33:08 AM

VIDEO: Martina McBride, "Anyway"

I’d be lying if I said I’ve liked every song I’ve ever heard Martina McBride do. But in the 13 years I’ve been listening to her, I’ve never once felt she was lying. For such a hugely popular singer, she’s done more than her share to resist the anonymity of contemporary country. The possessor of one of those rare voices that just gets bigger and stronger as it increases in volume, McBride doesn’t sing what she doesn’t feel. She may be incapable of that. That’s the blessing of her talent.

The curse of that gift is that no song on her new Waking Up Laughing (RCA) is as good as the way she sings it. This is her first time as a producer, and the first time she’s had a hand in writing some of her songs. The opening bodes well. It’s called “If I Had Your Name,” and its chorus ends with the great kiss-off “If I had your name/I’d be changin’ it right now.” She sings this as if she meant every syllable, as if it had been weighted and considered before it was spoken — and it’s all the more withering. The mandolin, steel-guitar, and fiddle work — by, respectively, Bryan Sutton, Paul Franklin, and Larry Franklin — is reassuringly “country” and not MOR trying to pass for country.

You can hear the plainspoken, unforced toughness McBride is capable of on “Cry Cry (’Til the Sun Shines)” — it’s in the way she bites down on “kicked” in the line “He always talked her down/He took her pride and kicked it ’round,” relishing its hardness. “Cry Cry” is one of those empowerment songs McBride has been singing since 1997’s “Evolution,” and, as always, her singing emphasizes the specificity of the situation instead of the bromide. She knocks the Oprah out of these numbers. They aren’t her great “Independence Day,” a song so fierce and alive to contradiction that it can never be smoothed over or tidied up (only “Smells like Teen Spirit” surpasses it as the best single of the ’90s), but then, what is?

So though I don’t doubt the sincerity of songs that suggest caring can ameliorate the woes of the world, the material on Waking Up Laughing underlines what McBride is leaving out. “For These Times” is a state-of-the-world song that makes no specific references and isn’t likely to offend anyone. “I’ll Still Be Me” posits a stable marriage as the answer to the fears that wake you up at 3 am. “Anyway,” one of the CD’s best performances, includes the line “God is great, but sometimes life ain’t good.” That’s a measure of the plainspokenness of which country music is capable. What it leads to here, though, is certainty and reassurance: “Sometimes when I pray, it doesn’t turn out like I think it should/But I do it anyway.”

That’s not to knock McBride’s obvious belief that perseverance leads to deliverance. This belief is what makes her tough — it sums up her sensibility. Her confidence as a singer derives from her openheartedness. Still, I can’t help wondering what would happen if she were to allow some weariness and despair to enter a song. Or if the anger that cuts through “Independence Day” were given free rein.

But as I watched McBride last Friday night at Radio City Music Hall, none of my reservations mattered a damn. Her voice remains one of the wonders of contemporary pop music. As powerful as it is on CD, it’s that much more powerful live. And when she hunched over at the end of “Broken Wing,” slowly rising until her head was thrown back and her arms extended for the sustained final note, you weren’t seeing a diva pose but a physical expression of the progress of the note, the journey from the ground to the clouds. One of the pleasures of music — whether soul, country (which amounts to white soul), or opera — is the chance to be bowled over by a powerful voice. At her most astonishing moments, McBride offers you the joy of surrender.

Dressed all in black — slim flared trousers, bejeweled lacy top, fitted swallow-tailed tuxedo coat — she projected a tougher, leaner look than usual. It felt exactly right when, for the encore, she leapt happily into Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me with Your Best Shot.” During the terrific cover of Tammy Wynette’s “Stand by Your Man,” the sneer that crossed her face on the withering line “After all, he’s just a man” told you that she really gets that often misunderstood song. (Something that couldn’t be said for the yob in the front of me who raised his arms in triumph whenever she sang the title.) “Independence Day” remains the closer — nothing can follow it. But any possibility that it had become rote was denied when McBride threw her microphone stand across the stage and the anger in the song came to life.

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