Trisha Yearwood left MCA Nashville on a high note in 2005 with Jasper County. It was her first record in five years, and one of her best. That said, it was merely a taste of what was to come when she spread her wings and went off on her own. Two years later the bounty of that decision comes to the listener on Heaven, Heartache and the Power of Love. Produced by Garth Fundis, who worked on Yearwood's early records and Jasper County, the album appears on the independent (but well-distributed and promoted) Big Machine Records, and it is obvious that this is the album Yearwood's wanted to make her entire career.
Fundis understands Yearwood's strengths as a vocalist and her creative ambition so completely he left off the studio gimmicks and compression trickery which plague so much of what comes out of Music City. Musical instruments like electric guitars and basses sound like what they are, not simulated '70s arena rock constructs. Acoustic guitars, fiddles, and mandolins ring natural and true, they don't need reverb and it's OK to hear the strings squeak because they are being played. The 13 songs chosen for this date are firmly in the country vein and were written by some of the best in the business, including Matraca Berg, Jim Collins, Gary Harrison, Billy Joe Walker, Karyn Rochelle and Tommy Lee James, Clayton Mills and Tia Sillers (who penned the title track and first single), Leslie Satcher, and others. The rollicking bluesy rockabilly that is the title cut rocks right out of the gate. There's a powerful B-3 worthy of Booker T. Jones pumping in the background, a pair of killer acoustic strings, a bluegrass mandolin, and a funky bassline throbbing under the drums, which are for a change nice and loud -- Nashville seems to hate the sound of real drums these days and squashes them in their mixes; Fundis lets them rip, along with a roaring electric guitar. Yearwood just goes for it, digging into the grain of the lyric and getting right to her blues growl, which comes out live a lot but seldom on her records. They should shop this track to the Top 40 because it smokes.
She changes up quickly with a non-stereotypical ballad/love song by Karyn Rochelle and Tommy Lee James called "This Is Me You're Talking To." The separation from the preceding track is clean; it feels natural. It's a song about honesty, longing, and the kind of acceptance that comes along when a former lover has moved on and you haven't. Strings gently emerge from the background as a pedal steel whinnies under Yearwood's lines, the drums punctuate the bassline (not the reverse), and as the electric guitars rise and the tension and drama in the tune come to a cresting wave, the strings do, too. It's devastatingly beautiful and the emotion coming from Yearwood's voice is downright real. She is not singing the song; she is the song. When the mirror image of this tune follows in Berg's and Collins' "They Call It Falling for a Reason," it dawns on the listener that this record is special, rooted deeply in the country tradition but not shying away from the contemporary rocking sound of it, either. This is another cooker, and it's so full of a lust for life, what with those guitars playing off one another and Yearwood pushing herself in a way she never has. The meld and mix Fundis gets out of the instruments all coming together to support that amazing voice is natural and warm, yet it has an edge that feels new, fresh, and above all, real. In this partnership, Yearwood's voice is at the service of great songs (she has always done this as a vocalist) but it seems only Fundis understands that the production should serve the song, not the other way around (which is the norm).
The stately country of "Nothin' 'Bout Memphis," (written by James with Jessi Alexander), is punctuated with a true soul horn section and a gospel-style chorus. It doesn't hurt that Jim Horn arranged the tasty horns, and that Dan Dugmore and Reese Wynans are all over this either. The truth of the matter is that if Yearwood wanted to, she could really sing soul and R&B. It's all here. Balance is the key to this set. Its pace and timing, its textures, which are varied yet never stray far from the strength and power in that voice, Yearwood stretches herself, she doesn't need anybody to push her, and the way solid country ballads with strings are juxtaposed against honky tonkers, rockers, and sweet and tender love songs either happy or sad is a thing of small wonder. Check "Help Me," with its graceful piano laced with strings, Dugmore's steel, and some tasteful drumstick percussion and cymbal work, all of which allow this singer to dig so far inside a song that what pours out is pure emotion.
There's no let-up in the breezy "Not a Bad Thing," which strolls casually out of the box to deliver a powerful lyric and picks up its own curt tempo. Rochelle's burning "Nothin' About You Is Good for Me" is one of the most rollicking honky tonk rockers full of blues grit and grease with a wonderfully haughty backing vocal by the songwriter. It rocks as hard as the opener, but it's harder country. The hard-driving blues feel continues in "Drown Me" as the acoustic guitars pump the vocal up, but when the band enters it's a stone-cold country rocker -- with just enough blues (and not Southern rock style, but real rockabilly blues) -- to deepen it and loosen it up and allow the listener the room to just dig in and holler in assent. And then there's "Sing You Back to Me" that closes this amazing set. With true class, elegance, and grace, Yearwood and Fundis add yet another element to this mix, a simple ballad written by Tony Arata and Gene Nelson that marries the glory of the American standard to the country ballad. What makes it so beautiful is Yearwood's vocal understating of this lithe melody, allowing it to sing itself to her; she articulates the airy yet weighty sadness in the tune by allowing herself the room to just let it come as poetry.
The bottom line is this: Heaven, Heartache and the Power of Love is, without a shadow of a doubt, the finest, most consistent and deeply moving (not to mention fun) record she has ever cut. It carries the mark of a bona fide artist who understands herself well enough to know that a great song is not only communicable but is communication itself to the listener. She has not only a sympathetic producer but a true co-collaborator in Fundis who gets the best performance from the studio players involved without making them sound like machines. This time out, Yearwood is in a class by herself, and if country radio/video/television get involved at all, she'll hit it out of the park. It's better than good, it's beyond expectation -- and it was high after Jasper County -- it's the best example of what a popular record -- not just a country one -- should aspire to be, period.