Pain to Kill is Terri Clark's pop-country release after the artistic triumph -- yet commercial failure -- of Fearless. There are many things on Pain to Kill that are different. For one, like Fearless, this is the work of a mature, fully realized artist. She's well aware of her strengths and uses them to her advantage in every song on the set. Secondly, veteran producer Keith Stegall worked on only half this record -- the latter half. Byron Gallimore produced the first half, including the first single, "I Just Wanna Be Mad." Thirdly, none of Clark's songwriting contributions to the project appear until the second half of the record. One has to ask why. Clark is a fine songwriter, either alone or in collaboration with others. Gallimore likes country music, he likes lots of guitars (layers and layers of them), and he likes very slick production styles. His drum loops and compression on the guitars squeeze everything so tight that Clark's voice is so far out front she no longer feels as if she's part of the musical accompaniment. It's not bad; it's just very different, jarring even for someone who's been listening to her records for a while. "I Just Wanna Be Mad" was an obvious choice to open the record with a grab-you hook and tough-woman stance. But this is a tough woman who believes in standing by her man even though she's pissed.
The title track is a rock & roll prime mover with Skynyrd-styled slide guitar, with about a million fiddles sawing through the mix. Clark growls her way through the lyric like she's in Black Oak Arkansas -- yes, that is a compliment. The Stegall half of the record begins with a Clark and Gary Burr ballad, with a lilting piano, shimmering acoustic, and glistening pedal steel carrying the message about those who love self-destructive people. It's devastatingly real and there's no false solemnity in the body of the tune. "Almost Gone," written with Stephony Smith and Lisa Scott, is an exhortation -- prodded by rows of acoustic guitars and a B-3 -- for a man to get his act together because the woman is on her way. The disc closes with "God and Me," written by Clark and Carol Ann Brown. Once again, here is self-determination, as well as absolute and relative truth, all considered on Sunday morning while watching preachers on television. It's simple affirmation and acknowledgment. Stegall surrounds Clark's vocal with Brent Mason playing Mark Knopfler-styled electric guitar, mandolins, acoustic guitars, and rim shots on top of floor toms. The effect is inspirational without being dogmatic -- easy, light, and free with a beautiful coda. As a new chapter in the catalog of an artist who will be with listeners for a long time, it's a fine one.