There are few vocalists in contemporary country music who can make a sad song feel so good. Lee Ann Womack is a poetess in her expressiveness. She uses it not only to communicate what's in the lyrics she sings, but also to arrest the listener's disbelief by underscoring her commitment to the dictum that positive change is always possible if you can survive the darkness. Call Me Crazy is Womack's first album in three years, a follow-up to her game-changing There's More Where That Came From. It walks a schizophrenic line both emotionally and musically: some moments recall the elegant, '70s pop-country sound that she consciously evoked on her previous disc, and there are others that are startlingly contemporary even by today's standards. Produced by Tony Brown, Call Me Crazy underscores his greatest strength: getting the essence of a vocalist across in a mix; but also his greatest weakness: the seeming inability to leave a musical backdrop until it's cluttered to death.
The set's opener, "Last Call," is a classic example of what makes Womack such a fascinating and emotionally resonant singer. This is a weeper, but also a song with its self-determination intact. The protagonist sees a phone number on her cell, and knows just who it is, but doesn't answer. She knows her former lover is in a bar and desperate, listening to cheating songs and drinking. She refuses to answer because she knows she's always his last call. The weave of acoustic guitars, a lonesome pedal steel, grand piano, fretless bass, and mandolin make it unmistakable as a country song, but it's not militant in either its arrangement or vocal. She's half sorry but experientially past the moment of returning to earlier mistakes. Smack dab in the middle of the album is "The Bees," a tune with a folksy country melody, but with an instrumental and sonic arrangement that feels like Tom Waits meets Brian Eno! It's almost sci-fi it feels so out of place, but it also feels like she should have done an entire record like this with its pump organ, deep, slapping basslines, dirty drums, and loops allowing her vocal an entirely new depth. (If this were the single there might be hope for contemporary country yet.) But there is some real snooze-worthy stuff here too. The hollow "The King of Broken Hearts" features Womack doing her best Dolly Parton but the mix fails to ignite. Likewise, "The Story of My Life" can't decide whether it wants to be a modern production number or a simple country song. Womack contributed three fine songs to the set, the plaintive, tender "Have You Seen That Girl," a lilting honky tonk waltz called "If These Walls Could Talk," and, the wildly over-produced "Everything but Quits," a duet with George Strait -- a great song all but ruined by Brown's studio excesses. Despite a couple of missteps, there is plenty to like here. Call Me Crazy continues Womack's journey of creating her own sonic brand. Perhaps next time she will flex her star power more and insist on more production control.