Tuesday, May 01, 2012

This Gene Watson Hits Album is sort of Worth It

From my PopMatters review, whose every paragraph begins with the suck-'em-in gambit "If you're," some thoughts:

If you’re a fan of country hitmaker Gene Watson and you’re considering buying his new collection Best of the Best: 25 Greatest Hits, you should know all 25 “hits” are re-recordings. They’re faithful re-recordings, slavish to the original arrangements and even keys, so it probably won’t make a huge difference to you. All the same, the gentleman Watson might have warned consumers somewhere on the album’s packaging.

And if you listen to Best of the Best in a certain way, Watson and Johnson’s meticulous re-creations become impressive pop-art endeavors, like Gus Van Sant’s nearly-shot-by-shot remake of Psycho or Damien Hirst’s extensive series of spot paintings. What constitutes an “original” work of art? When is a greatest hit not a greatest hit? When we plunk down money to relive a song, do slight differences reinvigorate that song or suck the air from our memories? Since Watson remade these songs for blatant financial reasons, does that somehow invalidate the songs as art?

If you’re skeptical, if slick turn-of-the-’80s Nashville doesn’t do it for you, you should still check out this album’s sequencing. Seriously, if the Grammys had an award for Best Album Sequencing, Best of the Best would be the one to beat. Watson and Johnson have grouped the songs into little thematic units, so that Gene Watson songs from different years converse and comment on one another. Watson made this album with money on his mind, but he opens it with a suite of songs discussing the evils of money and the virtues of poverty. “Fourteen Carat Mind” goes into the gentle “Paper Rosie”, where Watson idealizes a little old lady who sells paper roses and touches lives. (He also enjoys wine in both songs.) From there we move to the racy “Nothing Sure Looked Good On You”, Watson’s lament that his current gold digger isn’t satisfied with life like Paper Rosie. Offended, she engages in wanton behavior, so he sings “You’re Out Doing”, and… you get the picture. We hear diptychs on big themes: Loneliness (“Got No Reason Now For Going Home” and “One Sided Conversation”); New Orleans (“Love In the Hot Afternoon” and “The Old Man and His Horn”); Cheating and Insanity (“Should I Come Home (Or Should I Go Crazy)” into “What She Don’t Know Won’t Hurt Her”); and Hot Sex, or its absence (the aforementioned “Cowboys” slides wickedly into “This Dream’s On Me”). Watson closes the album with songs of memory, infidelity, and home, until he cheerfully falls off the wagon in “Drinkin’ My Way Back Home” and neatly loops back to the album opener “Fourteen Carat”. It’s like The Dark Tower with more honky-tonks.

If you’re up to it, though, you could explain to me the appeal of the brutal waltz “Where Love Begins”, in which the gentleman Watson pressures a virgin to give it up. “What’s that? What’s the matter? What’s making you cry? / You say it’s the first time for you? / LEEEAVE if you’d rather not lose what you came for! / Walk out the same door that I let you in!” Number five in ‘75, a precursor to Rod Stewart’s “Tonight’s the Night”; what a cad.

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