Duet records are big deals, especially in the country music world, where seasoned veterans seem to put them out just to get back on the charts or to keep from completely disappearing from view. Ask Willie Nelson, he's done at least half a dozen. Veteran Reba McEntire scored 500,000 units in the first week with her 2007 Reba Duets album. The Chain is a duet recording of sorts, though thankfully not everything here is one. Deana Carter's 2005 album The Story of My Life is one of the great songwriter recordings of the 21st century thus far, and if it was commercially under-appreciated it wasn't critically, and anyone who heard it needed to own a copy. It will always be a stellar aesthetic triumph in her career. Given her restlessness as an artist and her early brush with the charts and stardom on her 1995 debut Did I Shave My Legs for This? has probably been a thorn she's had to contend with ever since. Alas. What The Chain has to do with all this is that it feels contrived. A collection of cover songs is one thing, a way of paying back something to all the careers that inspired one's own. Carter's a fine singer and has always had some compelling ideas about production -- even if they are at times quirky, they more often than not bring some hidden depth and dimension to any song she cuts. Here, the production is wonderful, but the choice to use most of these people as singing partners -- and some of the songs she chose -- just don't get it. The set begins well, with her excellent reading of Roy Orbison's "Crying," it's full of soul even with its synth strings and loops. It works like a charm. There is even some tenderness when she duets with Kris Kristofferson on his "Help Me Make It Through the Night."
The duets begin on Paul Simon's "The Boxer." Singing with Harper Simon, who just plain can't sing, makes its six minutes and 12 seconds feels like an hour. He and Dan Dugmore do some cool guitar stuff (the latter on pedal steel of course), but it's interminable because of the awful contrast of voices and its length. Carter's reading of Bob Dylan's "Lay lady Lay" feels stilted and plodding, despite its pristine sound and the nice backing vocal touches she adds. Dolly Parton's "Love Is Like a Butterfly" is quite beautiful and even a tad psychedelic thanks to Carter's production, but her reading of Robbie Robertson's "The Weight" should never have been attempted. The piano sound is there, but Carter is not Mavis or Pops Staples and that song has been defined by them at this point (yes, it is far superior to the Band's as well -- just ask Robbie Robertson), and should never be covered again in the current epoch. Her appearance with Jessi Colter on "I'm Not Lisa" works well enough; it's a simple song and skeletally produced, and Colter gets inside that heartbreaking lyric with her grainy voice and turns it inside out, as Carter comes off sounding like a younger version of a person living through the same thing. Two generations of women haunted by similar ghosts. The rough and rowdy version of John Anderson's "Swinging" is bigger, trippier, and at least as much fun in Carter's production: Anderson and Carter funk it up Muscle Shoals style and it works like a charm. Oh yeah, big surprise that Nelson is here to help out with Carter's radical re-interpretation of his "On the Road Again," that feels more like a psychedelic version of Jackie DeShannon doing Nelson. It's all pillowy, dreamy, and droney tune in her reading, and production-wise, it's interesting, but there's no way to pull off those words and that feeling without it being up-tempo. Shooter Jennings duets with Carter on Nelson's and his late father Waylon Jennings' "Good Hearted Woman," and adds some much needed grit to the proceedings. All one can say about Carter's version of Dickey Lee's "She Thinks I Still Care," done with George Jones, can only be mentioned with a question attached: "what was she thinking?" The album closes with Neil Young's "Old Man." Dugmore helps on acoustic and electric guitars, Randy Leago's spooky organ, her own electric piano work -- and a wise use of synth strings and minimal programming -- with her voice actually ringing out on that refrain for the first time on the entire record, sends it off with great vibes as it's the strongest performance on the set. The bottom line is that while Carter may have had every intention of paying tribute to her heroes on this one, which is admirable, the execution falls short of the mark by more than a hair here. It would have worked better as strictly a covers set, or had she written her own songs, produced them the same way, and paid tribute to her heroes that way.