If you’ve only heard Carrie Rodriguez’s duet work with Chip Taylor, this second solo release of hers may be a mildly pleasant surprise. Not that her collaboration with Taylor was bad, mind you. It’s just that Taylor was clearly the alpha animal in that condensed pack. But in this instance, Rodriguez is solely the star of the show, even though she may not yet be ready for night sky constellation primetime.
Rodriguez took wise measures to assure the high quality of these eleven songs by co-writing with some of Americana’s best lyricists. These talented friends included Gary Louris (formerly of the Jayhawks) on the politically charged “Infinite Night”, as well as “El Salvador” and “Can’t Cry Enough”. Rodriguez also penned the music and lyrics of “Absence” with Mary Gauthier. Furthermore, none other than Lucinda Williams adds vocals to “Mask Of Moses”.
Although Rodriguez’s friends helped provide most of this CD’s obvious highlights, her new album overall is still far from a consistently strong effort. “Infinite Night” fires off this recording with a bang – no pun intended – by bemoaning the maladies of modern times, which include “boys with rifles in their hands.” And the painfully honest “Rag Doll”, which describes a couple that may never make their relationship work, is equally gripping -- especially when Rodriguez admits: “I make it hard to love me.” But except for the wonderful electric guitar line that sells “El Dorado” later on, little of note stands out during the final two-thirds of this work. It should come as no surprise that Louris contributed to this project’s two best rock songs, “Infinite Night” and “El Dorado”. But just as a taste of love is worse than none at all, the listener is left wishing for a lot more jangling electric guitars – such as the kind used during Louris’ contributions -- and far less strummed acoustics. In addition to these amplified axe moments, however, we should not forget that Rodriguez also plays a mean fiddle. Her best string ‘n bow work is reserved for the coolly jittery “Absence”. But aside from these aural exceptions, much She Ain’t Me simply falls flat sonically.
Louris’ contributions also give this disc its most stunning lyrical moments as well, much of the time comparing and contrasting earthly heaven with earthly hell. On the dark side, during “Infinite Night”, Rodriguez complains of “drug lords, crooked cops, and thieves.” Then with “El Dorado”, Rodriguez is pictured wondering if she’s finally found her earthly paradise. “All the streets are made of gold,” she observes, before asking, “But is this El Dorado?” Sometimes we are exposed to so much ugliness in life, we aren’t even sure we’ve found goodness – even when it stares us straight in the eye.
In the end, Lucinda Williams’ vocal presence, among other significant factors, is a reminder of what She Ain’t Me could have been, but isn’t. Williams growls during “Mask of Moses” in a commanding sort of way that the petit Rodriguez simply cannot match. Rodriguez also shares a producer -- Malcolm Burn -- with Emmylou Harris. Yet Harris is on the opposite side of the vocal spectrum from Williams -- more apt to express vulnerability and pain than vengeful anger. Sadly, Rodriguez also falls short of Harris’ fragility as well. She’s neither truly tough (like Williams), nor tender (like Harris). Both Williams and Harris have carved out unique vocal perspectives over the years, if you will, but Rodriguez has yet to find the point of view that fits her best. She ain’t the best Carrie, yet.