- SPIN Rating:9 of 10
It's not even 30 seconds into The Stand-In when Nashville singer Caitlin Rose registers a complaint that resounds through every corner of her radiant sophomore record: "Now the songs I wanna hear they never play."
It's that "they" who Rose so artfully admonishes for the next 40 minutes: the hackneyed gatekeepers of contemporary country radio, the ones who keep her changing the dial every few miles. With its spinning whirl of Hammond, frosted backup vocals, and driving acoustic guitar, "No One to Call" is the first of a dozen tunes that represent the kinds of songs she wants to hear. Warmed by the old Nashville sound, she channels Music Row architects from the '50s and '60s like Owen Bradley, Bob Ferguson, and Chet Atkins, redolent of the torchy, carefully crafted brilliance of country's glory days. But in her plea to the radio DJ, there's no one to pick up the other line, "Cause I've got no one to call / No one to call."
It's always tempting to nominate an outsider as the new queen of Music Row — Ashley Monroe and Kacey Musgraves are worthy contenders, as well. But you can really see Rose as something of a foil for Taylor Swift, another starlet born in the late '80s who has thinned the bloodline of the country charts enough that her recent record has a dubstep song on it. (An interesting bit of trivia: Caitlin's mother, Liz Rose, had a strong hand in writing more than a dozen of Swift's pre-dubstep hits, including "Tim McGraw" and "You Belong to Me.") Not that we can pin the country identity crisis on Ms. Swift alone: Before her, there was Carrie, and before her Shania, and so forth all the way back to heretics like Olivia Newton-John. But when a twentysomething like Rose comes along, with her honeyed voice and great band and real-deal skill for writing real-deal country songs, she pulls at a Nashville believer's heartstrings and evokes the city's grand ole glory days. She even smokes.
But you'd be remiss to take The Stand-In for a collection of mothball-scented nostalgia, or Rose for a paint-by-numbers retro-fetishist. This is a woman who came to country through the side door of Nashville's punk scene, admitted to hearing Merle Haggard's "I Think I'll Just Sit Here and Drink" through a cover by the Mountain Goats' John Darnielle, and enlisted Nashville indie rockers the Deep Vibration to back her up. That last factoid is probably what keeps this album from veering into the territory of Kitty Wells Theme Night at the karaoke lodge: Deep Vibration guitarist Jeremy Fetzer has an indispensable gift for judiciously balancing sparkling Telecaster twang with urbane sleekness. When Rose unveils a Chantilly-gauzed Tammy Wynette inflection, he smoothes out the crinkles with a polished riff evocative of Rumours-era Fleetwood Mac, and on tunes like "Silver" and "Waitin'," the leads fall somewhere between those of Tom Petty's Heartbreakers and Roger Waters.
But mostly, it's the wilting pedal steel, warm analog tubes, and lush heartbreak flourishes of "When I'm Gone" that distinguish Rose from the merchants of new country's jingles. It's also her delivery. With so many tunes aimed at healing the brokenhearted, her vocals show an aptitude for emotional ambivalence that leaves meaning in the ear of the beholder. When she coos a line like, "I would have warned you if I knew / But I never knew I was cruel," it's impossible to say whether she's being mischievous, reticent, or smug.
Take "Only a Clown," one of two tracks co-written with the Jayhawks' Gary Louris, as an emblematic example. Over a snare-drum shuffle and chiming mandolin strum, Rose offers a dedication to the outsiders at a party that contrasts an affecting chorus with lithe backing. "Put your record on / Let the band play a song / All about love and believing," it goes. "Good for you / 'Cause if that's true / Then it's only a clown that's leaving." Since it seems like Rose herself has one foot out the door, the ambiguity of the sentiment seems to both cheer the losers and envy the winners; like so many of her tunes, the magic lies between her cheerful sparkle and dark temperament.
There are so many other moments where Rose strikes this enigmatic balance — even her come-hither/go-away pose on the album cover seems to be sending a mixed signal. There's the four-on-the-floor stomp and distorted roll of Wurlitzer on "Menagerie," wherein she beautifully yearns to "destroy all these beautiful things," or when she shirks off the romantic matrimonial flush of "Pink Champagne" with this matter-of-fact realization: "Seein' how we both said yes / I guess we'll follow through."
So when things come to a close with "Old Numbers," a shambling tune that serves as a slightly corny outlier amid all the sophisticated stuff preceding it, Rose is still looking for someone to talk to. "Pardon me, I didn't mean to call," she sings coyly, between snaking lines of plunger trumpet. "Just can't help the way my fingers fall / Don't blame me, blame the memory of old numbers." Fortunately, her old numbers are the best new ones we've heard in a long time.