Album Review: Jamie O'Neal - Eternal

The first new album from Jamie O'Neal in nine years is also -- mostly -- a collection of her favorite songs throughout the years, ranging from well-known to obscure. Will this album itself become an 'obscure' record down the line?

As I mentioned in a previous review, I consider Jamie O'Neal one of the most underrated singers of the 2000s. Her debut "There Is No Arizona" remains one of my all-time favorite country songs, and her overall catalog has always been consistently well above the average. Unfortunately, radio hasn't always agreed with what she's wanted to put out, so her subsequent career has been a long string of false starts, low-charting singles, and unreleased albums. Finally, in 2014, she makes her return with an album that, outside one track, is composed of covers. Her choices of covers range from the obvious, such as "Golden Ring" and "Help Me Make It Through the Night," to the completely obscure (a low-charting Deborah Allen song from a long-since out-of-print album, a Bruce Cockburn song that only charted in Canada). So going into this project, I knew that I would have to hit YouTube and see how the originals stacked up to Jamie's takes. Instead of my usual approach of finding songs with similar themes on an album and stringing them together, I will go straight end-to-end.

The first cut is a take on Emmylou Harris' 1982 hit "Born to Run" (not to be confused with the Springsteen song). Harris's original is a stripped-down, jangly, yet energetic tale of a restless woman who follows her own path at full speed. O'Neal sticks very closely to the original but turns up the energy a little with her comparatively bolder singing voice, and the production gets enjoyably loose after the key change at the third verse. On the other hand, O'Neal isn't quite as sassy as the timeless Loretta Lynn on "Don't Come Home A' Drinkin' (With Lovin' on Your Mind)," but by no means does she phone in her solid take on that classic. The underrated Andy Griggs joins her on a very pleasant version of George Jones and Tammy Wynette's "Golden Ring." Their take has a similarly loose feel to the version that Jason Sellers recorded with Pam Tillis on his obscure 1999 album A Matter of Time, although Griggs and O'Neal's harmonies come apart a bit at the end.

Sammi Smith's "Help Me Make It Through the Night" is stripped down to little more than acoustic guitars, giving plenty of room for Jamie to belt out the classic Kris Kristofferson lyrics without ever overdoing it. (Check out the melisma at the end, in particular.) Her belting prowess also gives new color to Larry Gatlin's "I've Done Enough Dyin' Today," as she can reach the higher notes without going falsetto, she knows when to back off on the volume, and overall, her voice is less strident than Larry's. (I'm used to Larry Gatlin and the Gatlin Brothers' up-tempo material such as "All the Gold in California," "She Used to Be Somebody's Baby," and "Houston (Means I'm One Day Closer to You)," so their lushly-produced, mostly harmony-free tale of heartbreak was a pleasant surprise.) 

Connie Smith's 1971 hit "Just One Time" has not particularly aged well, with its reverberant backing vocals and almost polka-esque instrumentation. But Jamie reinvents it as a piano, mandolin, and steel-guitar filled shuffle, uncovering the simple yet effective song underneath. Though eight years older, Patsy Cline's lush "Leavin' on Your Mind" holds up better when listened to today. It follows a simple yet effective path in pleading that her man move on if he's got someone else lined up. Jamie's take on it removes the sweeping countrypolitan strings, but the plinking piano and smooth steel solo make up for that quite nicely. (And once again, the belting is justified at the end.) 

Next is Bruce Cockburn's "One Day I Walk," from his 1971 album High Winds, White Sky, and a #64 hit for him in his native Canada that year. I admit I'm not the biggest fan of acoustic folk, but every now and then, a song in that genre comes through and makes me pay attention. This particular one is solid and simple, about a beggar who hopes for better days. Jamie kicks up the tempo a bit and adds a few traces of slide guitar, giving the song a bit more of a pulse without compromising its folksy charm. 

Deborah Allen, best known for her sweeping 1983 ballad "Baby I Lied," scraped the bottom of the Top 40 in 1992 with "Rock Me (In the Cradle of Love)" after an eight-year absence. As a bluesy belter about a woman who's grown up and found a nice man, it seems well-suited for Jamie, and outside the removal of some dated reverb, her take is nearly a carbon copy. But that's not a complaint, as it didn't need any significant changes to fit Jamie's vocal style.

Finishing off the run of cover songs is Juice Newton's "The Sweetest Thing." While her vocal starts off a bit too restrained, she does cut loose come the chorus. A warmer production than the original still doesn't fully strip the 80's pop feel, but as someone who likes a little 80's pop, I can't complain too much that she doesn't work as hard to reinvent this song. The absolute last track is the only one that isn't a cover: "Wide Awake," written by Jamie O'Neal and her father, James ("Jimmy") Murphy. It's a cute and clever song about a husband with a snoring problem, with a melody very similar to "I'm Gonna Miss Her (The Fishin' Song)" by Brad Paisley. As funny and well-written as it is, it feels just a tad out of place on a covers album. 

Eternal is an outstanding covers album that, for the most part, hits all the right notes. The song variety is excellent, offering plenty of forgotten gems and familiar songs. While most of the arrangements aren't terribly far-removed from their originals (except "Just One Time" and "One Day I Walk"), Jamie leaves her own mark on every single one by merit of her colorful singing voice alone: a clear and forceful soprano belter who — surprise! — can actually sing in dynamic ranges other than "full blast." (A few bluesy phrasings don't hurt, either.) Radio may never play Jamie O'Neal again, but if this is the kind of music that she's releasing now, then I can live with her continuing to release albums under the radar. I just hope that I don't have to wait nine years for the next one.