There’s something that separates the Norah Joneses and the Gillian Welches from the Amy Speaces and Dulcie Taylors of the world. What that is is anybody’s guess. Maybe it’s luck. Maybe it’s talent. Maybe it’s sensibility. Maybe it’s structure. Maybe it’s taste. Maybe it’s a combination of all these things. Maybe it has nothing to do with any of them. But whatever it happens to be, its absence is the most glaring problem with Taylor’s recently released “Free of this Sorrow.”
The 11 tracks that make up the release aren’t flawed by obvious shortcomings — bad production, poor songwriting or a lack of professionalism. Rather, the main issue with Taylor’s latest is its over-arching lack of that ever-important it-factor. Sure, the record separates itself from other, less-experienced or less-talented local artists’ releases, but the one thing it doesn’t do is inch its way anywhere close to those singer-songwriter powerhouses who succeed at the female alt-country crooner formula so effortlessly.
Actually, the latter part of that genre is an element that serves as an undertone throughout all of “Free of this Sorrow.” Washington’s Taylor proves her pop country chops with “Sea is So Wide,” the album’s final track. Backed by an up-tempo, radio-ready groove, the only thing holding the song back from modern-day country bliss is Taylor’s lack of twang in her voice. “Love Can Take You High,” meanwhile, evokes the Eagles a la “Take It Easy” with its laid-back vibe and western-sounding intonations.
Taylor is at her best when she veers away from her country lean, however, and ventures into other, less-predictable waters, such as the jazz influence on “First Kiss.” In the album’s most intriguing track, Rick Braun’s muted trumpet provides an atmosphere not often successfully created by local acts and the Rhodes piano work from Dom Camardella brings a feel that immediately transports any listener to an earlier, more weathered generation. Not only is the song the best of the bunch, but it’s also the most fearless.
Unfortunately, that type of ambition quickly falls by the wayside with the somewhat hokey “Man of Few Words” and the disappointingly boring “All Along the River.” The former tells the story of an accepting kind of love but comes across as overwrought and just plain cheesy while the latter’s waltz isn’t enough to save the song from monotony despite its soulful organ work and tender approach — think an even-more slowed-down version of the Counting Crows with Neko Case sitting in.
And it doesn’t get much better from there. “Amor Malo (Bad Love)” is a cheap attempt at Latin music and a salsa feel, and while the song might be aimed at illustrating how diverse Taylor can seem, it instead proves to be an awkward fit into an otherwise pop-centric album. “Everyday Tragedy” doesn’t work for the same reasons that make “Man of Few Words” forgettable, and while the title track’s dulcimer feature is welcome, the rest of the performance refuses to grab hold of any listener’s attention for longer than a handful of seconds.
But that’s not a song-specific problem. The all-around blandness of “Free of the Sorrow” overrides the few good spots it admittedly provides, and even though these songs may disappoint because of its colorless abundance, the album’s lack of flavor as a whole is what truly makes it frustrating. Taylor has a fine-enough voice, but it never quite kicks into gear on a trip that is seemingly plagued with flat roads and cornfields. To say it’s soulless would be hyperbolic, but to say it ever expands and provides power would simply be inaccurate.
Then again, maybe that’s what truly stands in the way of Dulcie Taylor breaking through into the national spotlight: The lack of an it-factor that her contemporaries exude with a tremendous amount of grace and ease. “Free of the Sorrow” isn’t entirely wretched — Taylor proves her worth as a wordsmith in brief spurts of poignancy throughout the album — but it is a record that simply feels like it should be so much more expansive than it is. There’s nothing wrong with simple country-leaning pop rock, of course. But when it refuses to break away from the formulaic tricks that paint most of the 11 songs featured here, the lack of imagination becomes palpable and the work as a whole is rendered dull. Maybe by the time Taylor finds herself in a studio again, she can re-find that sorrow from which she freed herself for this record. It certainly couldn’t hurt.
** 2 STARS OUT OF 4 **