It has been 6 years since Kellie Pickler was on American Idol, a show that introduced her to us as a ditzy, spunky and likable “little minx” (as Simon Cowell called her) with an undeniably country voice and backstory. Her 1st 2 albums showcased her sass and sense of humor with occasional glimpses into the heartbreak Kellie’s suffered from a mother who abandoned her, a father fighting substance abuse issues who has been incarcerated multiple times, and from men she had difficulty letting go even when she knew things weren’t right. Kellie’s 3rd album opens up a whole window into a more grown up Kellie who still aches for family but has found hope and fulfillment in the real love she’s found with her husband.
Much has been made about Kellie making a real country album this time, a departure from her poppy, glossy sophomore album. With Kellie delivering by far her best, most believable studio vocal performances yet on 100 Proof, the traditional country direction is obviously the right one for her. There are still spots on the album where Kellie pushes her voice too high (like the bridge of the otherwise lovely “Rockaway”) but for most of 100 Proof, Kellie shows stronger vocal control within her range and more emotive phrasing than her previous albums. 100 Proof’s production mixes some smoothly produced, steel guitar-heavy ballads (the title track, “As Long As I Never See You Again”, “Turn On The Radio & Dance”) with a couple acoustic ballads (“Mother’s Day”-whose production seems inspired by Miranda Lambert’s “The House That Built Me”, “The Letter (To Daddy)”) and textured, rootsy uptempos (“Unlock That Honky Tonk”, “Little House On The Highway”). It’s sequenced so you get a heavy dose of Kellie’s commitment to old school country before the album relaxes into a modern version of a hard core country album.
The freshest discovery on 100 Proof is the way Kellie sings the love songs, of which there are three (“100 Proof”, “Rockaway”, “Turn On The Radio & Dance”). The emotional weight in Kellie’s voice makes you feel how much affirmation she’s gotten from her marriage and how badly she craved it. When Kellie’s singing lines like “We’ll go home and lay down safe in the arms of love” (from “100 Proof”) or “Don’t stop rockin with me baby, without you it wouldn’t be the same” (from “Rockaway”) or “Need to drown out this old world and turn on the radio and dance” (from “Turn On The Radio & Dance”), she’s reminding us how love has saved her. These aren’t just sappy love songs because you can’t escape the sadness in Kellie’s voice-you know she’s been on the other side (documented in songs from previous albums like “Didn’t You Know How Much I Loved You”, “One Last Time” and “Somebody To Love Me”) and found redemption in where she is now.
The new song “As Long As I Never See You Again” puts closure on that time on the other side (“I’m through that pity party stage, the healing’s finally come of age, no more feeling sorry for me days, I’m over you”), with the warning that she can only think of this ex as a friend if she never sees him again. Out of these songs, “100 Proof” has the best chance of being a breakthrough single for Kellie. “Rockaway” is a beautifully written standout inspired by two rocking chairs where Kellie and her husband sit and dream, though it’s hampered by a mood-killing, chipmunky bridge. “Turn On The Radio & Dance” (which has a sweet little steel guitar lick for a great hook) and “As Long As I Never See You Again” are solid album filler that will remind people of early Reba.
Although Kellie’s matured into a woman in love, “Mother’s Day” and “The Letter (To Daddy)” show she still cherishes innocent, girlish fantasies of a complete family life. In “Mother’s Day” Kellie dreams of when she can enjoy the cheesy little Hallmark moments that come with Mother’s Day and finally escape the emptiness she always feels that day. In the really short (barely over 2 minutes) but pretty “The Letter (To Daddy)”, Kellie tells her father how she’s “proud” of him for “never giving up on” them and finally conquering his demons. Kellie sounds much younger on these songs than on her relationship songs, which is arguably a sign of how far she’s come and how far she has to go in life. Family building is obviously more complicated than what these songs depict, but it’s hard to begrudge a girl whose mother left and whose father wasn’t around her simple picture, just like it’s hard not to tear up when Kellie ends her letter to her father with “always, your baby girl”. “Mother’s Day” tests patience a little with verses that drag, but the chorus does a great job picking things up.
People looking for the funny, flighty Kellie who is an Ellen DeGeneres favorite won’t find her on the album here. Kellie does bring familiar sass on tracks like “Tough” and “Unlock That Honky Tonk” but they don’t cut as deep as other songs because they lack in descriptive lyrics and good storytelling. But, they add energy and diversity. There’s a bass line on the dynamically produced “Unlock That Honky Tonk” that makes it quite the toe tapper. Inside “Unlock That Honky Tonk” is a line “Don’t tell me country’s gone, cause I’m ’bout to try some on” and Kellie does that old school with “Where’s Tammy Wynette?” and “Stop Cheatin On Me”. In both songs, Kellie’s wallowing in a relationship with a man more interested in drinking, partying, and/or other women than her. Though Kellie sounds right at home singing both of these very catchy songs and “Where’s Tammy Wynette?”‘s lyrics are clever, it’s a little harder to take to the message of these songs when you know kerosene and Louisville sluggers provide satisfying musical alternatives to standing by a lousy, undeserving man.
But “Where’s Tammy Wynette (When You Need Her?)” is a strong song that goes down easier if you take it as snarky commentary on country radio and how it doesn’t speak to what women really feel. In fact there’s a few songs where Kellie mentions radio in a way that’s funnier in light of her recent struggles there. The lines “Maybe we’ll call up that DJ, see if he’ll play our song. We’ll wait until he does yeah, we’ll stay there all night long” from “Turn On The Radio & Dance” will ring funny to any fan who’s found requesting at radio to be like talking to a brick wall. Then there’s “Little House On The Highway”, a charming catchy uptempo about life on the road where Kellie sings “I finally found a radio station that’s keeping me wide awake. And just when I like what I’m hearing is when it starts fading away”. It’ll ring true for those of us who’ve taken road trips only to discover that a good radio playlist can be hard to find.
As a collection of songs and a reflection of who Kellie is, 100 Proof is Kellie’s best, most cohesive album yet and it’s one of the better mainstream country albums released in the past year. The album’s lyrics are mostly quite simple with a few ear catching moments, but each song is in a comfort zone for Kellie that she’s finally been able to define for herself. Whether or not 100 Proof gives Kellie the hit singles she needs to solidify a spot at country radio, it should be a career defining album that proves good things happen when fans and record labels let singers figure out who they are and make albums accordingly.
Singles, please: “100 Proof”, “Where’s Tammy Wynette” (but will country radio play a song with Tammy Wynette in the title? Isn’t it sad I even have to ask that?), “Rockaway”, “Little House On The Highway”