Jo Dee Messina

Delicious Surprise

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Not counting a Christmas album and a greatest-hits compilation, Jo Dee Messina didn't release an album between 2000's Burn and 2005's Delicious Surprise. Five years is a long, long wait between records, and Messina does what any smart artist should and pretends that the gap doesn't exist by patterning her new album after the prevailing trends in current country music. At the midpoint of the 2000s, the hottest thing around is the Muzik Mafia spearheaded by gonzo country-poppers Big & Rich, whose protégée Gretchen Wilson is the biggest new female country singer of the mid-'90s. Messina uses Wilson, or at least Wilson's rowdy redneck image, as the foundation of her comeback on Delicious Surprise, which is filled with sexy pictures of Messina, starting with her toned stomach on the back cover to a shot of her topless on a white piano in the liner notes (for those interested in such things, the poster promised on the back cover is nothing more than the large picture on the fold-out booklet, meaning that if you tack this up on your wall, your CD no longer has a booklet). Wilson's attitude is also apparent on the sassy first single, "My Give a Damn's Busted," which sports not only the funniest lyric here, but also the leanest, liveliest arrangement. That's because, for all of the exterior makeover, Messina pretty much remains the same as she was in 2000: a dynamic, charismatic singer who's good enough to make her professionally crafted Nashville country-pop sound less formulaic than it is, but that doesn't disguise the fact that it's often standard Music City fare. And it's not the songwriting that's a problem -- she gets some of the best professional tunes on the market and her original material here (four songs, which is a grand total of a quarter of the album) is assured, confessional, and among the best material here -- but it's the production and presentation, which are too safe, predictable, and radio-ready. True, Delicious Surprise is well done, sounding as good as anything in mainstream contemporary country, but as "My Give a Damn's Busted" proves, Messina's already appealing vocals sound better in arrangements that don't rely on soaring choruses and aren't polished til they shine. Not that she sounds bad -- it's just that she doesn't sound as distinctive as she could or should, given that great voice of hers. All things considered, Delicious Surprise is a solid comeback -- after a five-year hiatus, it's simply good to have Jo Dee Messina back -- but the best moments here, whether the aforementioned single or her searching ballad "It Gets Better," are good enough to hold out hope that she releases an album of songs that consistently strong the next time around.

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