California singer-songwriter Laura Benitez may profess a disinterest in “recreating the past in a recording or at a show,” but her steel-infused second album has a lot more in common with country music of the decades before her birth than the note-perfect arena-ready crossover productions of modern Nashville. Much like Dee Lannon, another country singer bred of the San Francisco Bay Area, Benitez sings rock ‘n’ roll-tinged honky-tonk with a lyrical outspokenness that carries on the works Kitty, Tammy, Dolly and Loretta. Together with her road band, the Heartache, Benitez has laid down a set that sports the give-and-take of live performance, rather than the metronomic perfection of endless studio retakes.
The album’s opening kiss-off, “Good Love,” forges self-appreciation out of romantic ashes, echoing the personal discovery and emotional strength found in the great run of hits by Patty Loveless, Martina McBride, Jo Dee Messina and other female country singers of the 1990s. Benitez isn’t afraid to ask for what she wants in “Take Me Off the Shelf,” nor does she shy away from the other woman’s truth of “I Know You’re Bad” or the poison of “This Empty Bottle.” When it’s time to hit the road, Benitez doesn’t hesitate, though the rebuke of “Imitation of You” is tangled with recrimination, and the wishes of “Heartless Woman” are perhaps only half-hearted.
The band’s rhythm section is solid but restrained, and the harmony vocals – many provided by Benitez herself – add flavor without compromising the leads. Ian Taylor Sutton’s steel guitar favors Don Helms’ classic work on “Where You Gonna Be Tonight,” and Benitez’s forlorn vocal suggests Linda and Emmylou. The album closes with a cover of Gillian Welch’s “Tear My Stillhouse Down” whose 2/4 beat and electric guitar shift the lyrics from remorse to self-anger. Benitez isn’t one to sit around and mope, so even her most troubled songs have an upbeat feel, ala the Derailers or Buck Owens. And like the Derailers, classic country twang provides a jumping off point for Benitez and the Heartache, rendering their music fresh, but anchored in an era before ProTools, auto-tune and crossover striving. [Â©2014 Hyperbolium]