Sara Evans

Greatest Hits

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Sara Evans wasted no time getting back to what she does best in the music game after her divorce. While it's true that this is a compilation released just a week after the messy event was final, this set arrived and four of its 14 cuts are new tracks. There are some real problems with assembling a collection like this: for starters it contains not a single cut from her excellent debut, Three Chords and the Truth, issued in 1997. Greatest Hits is essentially every big single, but ignores some of the also-rans in favor of new songs. That's fine and its accurate, but it feels incomplete. The new cuts are part of the problem: the album opens with "As If," an anthemic but generic love song written with Hillary Lindsey and John Shanks, who produced all the new cuts (and you can be sure at least two of them will end up on her next studio effort). The cut is full of big, compressed guitars and muted, programmed-sounding drums -- despite the fact that Evans has one of the best bands in the business. Her own amazing voice is covered over by the production, and the lyrics coming out at this particular time are sure to invite speculation -- but perhaps that's part of the game plan. Nashville's publicity game is as savvy as L.A.'s or New York's, no matter what they show on the surface. The bottom line is the track doesn't cut it. It might even be a hit because Evans fans are notoriously faithful (and they should be, for she hasn't let them down yet, but this effort is still substandard for such a fine writer). The other new cuts, which make up the last three on the disc, are also co-written with Shanks, along with either Aimee Mayo, Lindsey, and Matt Evans (right, her brother). "I Love You with All My Heart" is another big love song, but it fares far better than "As If." It contains drama and is dynamic despite its rather hopelessly compressed acoustic and electric guitar sound (that makes everything sound thin). It's almost as if Shanks is going for a contemporary country version of Phil Spector's Wall of Sound, with a million guitars, big fiddles, layered pianos, drums, and a flat-sounding bassline that just keeps time. Whatever it is, it doesn't work. Evans, who is a truly gifted singer and an excellent judge of her own production, must have had a hard year to let this guy touch her music. But the melody redeems the track, and its feel in large part is more emotive and less contrived than its predecessor. "Pray for You" is an honest-to-goodness country song, and this feels like Evans at her strongest. It's a story-song, full of memory, longing, and reflection. The melody is quite beautiful, and Evans allows her voice to let the song guide it rather than shoving the song through the band's racket. The closer, "Some Things Never Change," is another country-rock tune with reedy fiddles (that didn't have to be), but Evans' lyric turns on a dime and allows the narrative to tell itself. She offers a portrait of everyday life that feels desirable, even enough to be yearned for. The instrumentation is still gummed up, but there is a more organic, less slick presentation here; in fact, the piano actually sounds like one, and the singer is allowed the range of her voice to get above the accompaniment. Hopefully this is where she's heading on her next record and hopefully she finds someone else to produce or do it herself. As for the "Greatest Hits" part of this, the title track from No Place That Far is here, as are the first four cuts from Born to Fly, "Suds in the Bucket" from Restless, and three from Real Fine Place (the title cut, "Cheatin'," and of course, "You'll Always Be My Baby"). It's a mixed bag: you get some great songs all together, and some new ones. Unfortunately, only half of them approach the true worth of Evans' artistry.

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