Speed of Grace continues Matraca Berg's lukewarm affiliation with RCA's pop division. With her soulful vocals supported by a gang of Los Angeles studio pros -- including drummer Jim Keltner and guitarist Michael Landau -- Berg dips into material that finds a bluesy rock gear suggestive of Alannah Myles, or maybe Bonnie Raitt after a move to the city. In "Tall Drink of Water," Berg imagines Amarillo in the steamy heat, and relates her desire for a cowboy poet "she wants but doesn't need." Drenched in gallons of studio gloss, Berg's sultriness often gets lost in bland corners and light rock dead ends that, although pleasant enough, deaden the spark she displayed with her earlier work. A nice new arrangement of "Jolene" suggests progressive bluegrass, and the downturned gospel flavor of "River of No Return" really gives Berg something to work with vocally. But, too often, Speed of Grace falters, opting for light rock when it could go for tasteful country-pop or even blues. An ill-advised cover of Bob Seger's "Come to Papa" -- its pronouns adjusted accordingly -- does try to groove on a bluesy rock vibe. But cleaned up with backup singers and a lead riff completely sanitized of any grit, the track never gets out of mild bar band entertainment territory. This is disappointing, as Berg is a talented songwriter and wonderful singer who seems to be suffering from a label's indecision about where to place her. If they'd just stop meddling and let her do her thing, Berg might finally get her solo career out of its doldrums and back into the promising and smart contemporary country of 1990's Lying to the Moon.
The Speed of Grace Review
by Johnny Loftus