There is that long lost lonesome in the grainy reed of songwriter Gina Villalobos' voice that takes the listener by the collar or pulls his hair and pulls him down to that level where truth is mitigated between one person's desperations, hopes and longing and another's. Gina Villalobos grabs the listener by the hair with a smile on her face and does so by using rock & roll's brash dynamics, country's instantly catchy melodies, and the lyric imagery of a guttersnipe poet. Over the course of her recording and touring career, Villalobos has deepened the indelible marks left on her heart from the endless travelodges of the world, the trashy streets of Los Angeles, the endless smoky club stages and those faces and souls she's encountered rightfully and wrongfully in the process of becoming a songwriter of such power, depth and immediacy that she makes most of her peers seem like poseurs. She rips open her skin and lays bare that pulsing, thirsty, raw organ and makes it sing. If you want comparisons, fine: think the rough and rowdy Lucinda Williams meeting Joan Jett and Patti Smith for a drink and things getting out of hand. Villalobos is a sinner who is seeking the redemption she can see but never reach. Her songs are loaded with tough, edgy guitars, clean taut lines and a raw, in-your-face presence that only underscores their beauty. This is the kind of music Nashville may be afraid of throwing out there in all its ugly, tarnished elegance, but is trying to cut through indirectly via the rock & roll-drenched sound of artists like Sugarland and, to a lesser degree Little Big Town and Gretchen Wilson. This is country music first and foremost, topically, musically, and compositionally, but it's rock & roll in spirit, texture, and presentation.
Villalobos is the real thing. Check "Face on the Sheets" with its wide-open electric guitar wrangling by Kevin Haaland and pedal steel boss Sean Caffey. She rolls right on top of the din as the snares pop and the bass plods: "I can't brush off this stain/Someone tape up my face again/'Cause it studies my feet/I'm such a case and I lie about my medicine...Come on baby/I heard you had to sell your sheets again/Come on baby/Rub yourself on the sheets again/Take it from me..." She nails it as guitars scream and wail, breaking down the four walls she's sought shelter in. Fittingly enough, the next cut is a ballad called "Let's Fall Apart." Amid the sound of whining pedal steel, banjo, fiddle, and big wide-open six-strings and electric violin, Villalobos stretches her limited range to the place where the valves take hold and take over. The verses are so gentle and fragile and the refrains suffocating: "...The concrete in the rain it makes a taste/And weighs down on your skyline/I'm ducking for some cover and passing out/Oh let's just fall apart/Let's just lose ourselves/And find us a dying art/That's what we've become..." All of this is done with spiky teeth, some sense of what Hank Williams was after, and the smeared walls of broken-down Hollywood's empty promises as portrayed by its graffitied walls and shambolic old hotels. In other words, it's this woman's microcosmic look at America, hell, a world, that cannot be summed up but needs to be dissected in desolation and love, and sometimes they are the same thing. Villalobos' songs, such as the title track, bang and clatter, full of hooks and phrases that are so memorable you'll find yourself humming them long after the record's played itself out: "I could burn but the night won't fire/I could fall but the ground won't go/I could even get connected/Or busted up and used/Tempted and so bruised/But I'm miles away/Miles away from turning on you..." There is also a radical cover of Barry Gibb's "If I Can't Have You" that reveals the true nature of the tune. Apart from its glossy pop sheen and in the sweet-as-honeycomb and cough-syrup rasp of Villalobos' voice it's as needy and desperate as anything recorded in decades. Miles Away is one of those recordings you'll be playing in a decade, it's timeless and combines every element that makes a recording a classic. Whether it will become one or not is anybody's guess, but this woman's got all the pieces and they are in the right jagged order. Miles Away is tough, tender, big, loud, bittersweet, hungry, and honest. It doesn't get much better than this.