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Lyn Bowtell's "Secret Songs" Reviewed

Lyn Bowtell’s revelations

I wonder what Nashville would make of Australian country singer, Lyn Bowtell? In the 1980s, MCA could  have figured her out despite  Lyn being  more country AOR than Kelly Willis’ style country pop, they are enjoined on a common ground. And Lyn is a better singer.

But in 2013, Nashville would be shoehorning her into Lady Antebellum and watering down Lyn’s strong mead. Meanwhile, in Australia, where she dates my nephew, sound engineer Damon Morton, Lyn can’t open her mouth without being handed an award and became a top ten selling country act with her last album 2012’s Secret Songs.

Next January sees the release of Lyn’s follow up, Heart Of Sorrow, so now is a good time to catch up with a very good country writer and a great country singer. Secret Songs ends with an a capella version of “Wonderwall”, a good song sure, but Lyn’s arrangement is indifferent and the melody can’t withstand the pressure, but the singing stops you dead in midstride. It gets to the point that the other 13 songs just can’t stop making: here is a voice Natalie Maines would love to have, here is a voice that seems to be the height of country as an art form, whatever the song and whatever the concern, even Noel Gallagher’s coke addled straddled egomania cry for help, gains the depth of tragedy mutating into hope.

Yes, and that is the worst song on the album. Taking it back from the top, the quality is unerring even if unnerving “Hush” is just depressing but in a non plussed positive way, it’s like if you’ve ever made love to somebody while they are crying: so much of the feeling in her songs hits both ways.

The early country swing of “Sing Along” comes across as a fake and it is the stifled desire of “Beautiful Liar” that probably has the continent saying “the envelope please”. “Beautiful Loser” would be considered lo-fi in different  circumstances; it’s tremulous seduction and minimal breath control.

A Janis Ian collaboration is quietly effective, actually quietly affective is what Bowtell does best, it might be country but it isn’t twang. I mentioned Natalie Maines before, but I think I could throw in Jason Isbell: it isn’t the overproduced, multi tracked tusk master of Sugarland, even a bluesy workout like “Trouble” is clean crisp corners of sound.

In an interview, Bowtell claims the album catalogs a couple of tumultuous years in her life: “I have had the most roller-coaster few years of emotion, amazing highs and ridiculous lows… I suppose the yo-yo ride has made me stronger but it’s been tough. From these few years I have only taken from them songs and inspiration. You name it, I’ve had it… I left my husband, I lost weight, I laughed until I cried and I questioned why I was here and what life was about… it all came back to music and it’s the only answer I have”.

But there is another way to look at it, with Secret Songs, Lyn completed a movement from a country trio, to an in demand back up singer, to a lead singer and in Australia she was embraced as a grown up  making music for grown ups over and above the country hash tag. In the States (I picked up the album of ITunes and nepotism notwithstanding, it was worth it) the country music scene is a mess; while country is all over Billboard, there is something shallow about the scene. If anything, Bowtell is a little too good, as a singer she demands a response even when she is just singing a straight pop song, and when Bowtell is pulling you in deep her voice is like a tantalized quicksand from the straightforward country of “In Love” to the despairing folly “No Lover” closed up horror, it is where you begin. Like a bad romance, it is painful and exquisite but you are the better for it.

Grade: B+

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