aith Hill is, alongside Shania Twain, unquestionably the queen of country crossover—which has, in recent years, been precisely her biggest problem. Her last album, 2003’s Cry, was an infamously naked grab for pop dollars and was a miserable (critical) failure. It did well enough commercially, but not up to her previous standard; pop fans tuned in, but some of her longtime country fans tuned Faith out. So her new album, Fireflies, is being talked about as a “return to country,” something to remind us of why Faith became a star in the first place. Remember her debut single, “Wild One”? Her cover of “Piece of My Heart”? Well, keep remembering, ‘cause you’re not gonna find anything too reminiscent of those here.
The album was launched with the #1 country single “Mississippi Girl,” which with its “Still like wearin’ my old ball cap / Ridin’ my kids around piggyback” chorus is most definitely Faith’s “Jenny From the Block” moment. The big difference is that from Faith, claiming that “y’all, I’m still a Mississippi girl” doesn’t sound like a case of the lady doth protesting too much; her public image as a loving wife (to fellow superstar Tim McGraw) and mother (of 3 girls), as someone who’s in fact not “big-headed from a little big of fame” totally jibes with the song’s lyrics (kudos to Adam Shoenfeld and John Rich [the latter of Big & Rich] for getting this one just right).
Unfortunately, “Mississippi Girl” comes second on the album, preceded by another John Rich co-write, the ultra-bland “Sunshine and Summertime,” which frankly sounds like it belongs on a Kenny Chesney album with its “Hey everybody don’t you wanna party” choral refrain and endless list answering the $20,000 Pyramid category “You see these things in the summertime” (“everything from “barefoot ladies and tricked out Mercedes” to “classic colas and ice cold Coronas”). Apparently, Rich wants to make sure that once his performing career dries up he’s still got a lucrative career as a country tunesmith, but it’s a shame that he feels the need to zero out to do it. (Honestly, while a song like this is disappointing, from Faith these days it’s no surprise.)
Likewise, it’s no surprise to find a duet with McGraw on a Faith Hill album; the one here, “Like We Never Loved At All,” is akin to previous ones in that it’s again fairly generic. I wish that with a song like this Faith would just admit it and go full-on AOR—this could’ve made a pretty good Journey single 25 years ago. “Like” isn’t a proper duet, per sé, with McGraw largely contributing harmony vocals on the chorus, but no matter, this’ll be a huge hit on Adult Contemporary radio, if not country. “I Want You” is a bit more AOR in its presentation, but comes off sounding more country anyway, thanks to the steel guitar and dobro accenting the track. Once it gets to the bridge, swooping its way through like an eagle soaring through canyons, you’re hooked. It’s also helped by Faith’s best vocal on the album, strong, sexy, yet a little bit ethereal.
The mandolin on “We’ve Got Nothing But Love to Prove” is obviously meant to signify “country,” but Faith needn’t have worried. The “Is everything A-OK in the USA” chorus, while not the rah-rah flag-waving you might expect from the genre, should still ensure a big ol’ country radio and video hit. The song’s OK, if not exactly A-OK. But it sounds like she’s trying here, at least. She’s trying to get “Paris” over, as well, but to no avail. This would-be theme to a big Hollywood romance is the epitome of overblown (complete with full string section, of course) and better left to the Celines and Barbaras of the world.
Much of the remainder of Fireflies has the same problems; God love her, but Faith and her handlers just can’t seem to tell the difference between good and bad songs. “Dearly Beloved” is a clever little down-home number which reminds me a bit of Sara Evans’ recent “Suds in the Bucket” (and might actually fit someone like Evans better), but for every “Beloved” there’s a desperate housewives ballad like the oh-so-earnest “Stealing Kisses.” Unless she shocks everyone and makes a throwback album like Lee Ann Womack’s There’s More Where That Came From (still 2005’s best country release)—which suffice it to say isn’t likely—Faith’s always going to be doing her uneasy country vs. pop balancing act. I just wish that she’d pick a side of the fence.