Can mainstream music formats be redeemed? A strange question with which to begin a review, but one worth posing about contemporary country music, one of America's most popular genres as the millennium rattles to a close. Because of its mass-market success, and the hope for more, it is also one of the most carefully formatted of musical styles, challenging and quirky edges polished off by artists, labels, and media understandably obsessed with occupying the lucrative center. Rosie Flores' music fits pretty tidily into this format, and she has in fact enjoyed some limited mainstream success, but, in the end, her sweet, sunny voice and heterodox, creative treatment of musical tradition limits her prospects in the black hat world. Fortunately for the rest of us, she persists, and "Dance Hall Dreams" is as good as if not better than any prior effort.
"Little Bit More" starts things off swinging with piano and walking bass, swooping steel guitar behind Flores' lively vocal, the tonal purity of which manages to render insatiability fetchingly innocent. "We'll Survive" is on the quieter side, lovely acoustic instrumentation supporting Flores' winsome, hopeful lyrics, tender family concerns echoed in "Who's Gonna Fix It Now," an appreciation of a departed father and the inspiration which survives. An arch shuffle animates "Funnel of Love," but, since darkness stands no chance of penetrating Flores' vocal, the result is a sly excitement. "Bring It On," co-written and sung with Radney Foster, is swinging, creeping pop country devoid of hype and excess, a model for the style, the genre.
"The Man Downstairs" is something quite different, swampy blues for the season of the witch, Flores' vocal viscous and syrupy, devilish electric guitar and lap steel leads, a dense backing of organ and female chorus. "It Came From Memphis" is also on the bluesy side, a Canned Heat shuffle commemorating the origin of rock 'n roll.
There's life in "Dance Hall Dreams," the vitality of a musical genre not yet interred. Rosie Flores, redeeming contemporary country, one CD at a time. - Jim Foley