Alexander makes ‘Sweet’ music

Jason LeRoy

Credit: Jason LeRoy

There is much that is immediately suspicious about country ingenue Jessi Alexander. For one thing, she is very pretty, not to mention blonde. For another, her publicity stills seem to be aiming more for guitar-toting glamourpuss than gritty country gal. Third, she records for a super-major label. And finally, her name is “Jessi.”

The combination of the above information suggests that Ms. Alexander is much more pop than country, more Shania than Loretta. Indeed, much of her early publicity has celebrated her willingness to be melodic and accessible rather than “obscure” (which I take as a personal attack on my favorite female “country” singers, like Neko Case and Gillian Welch).

This, naturally, is not a problem if the listener is a fan of country-pop like Ms. Twain or Faith Hill. But if you are more interested in authenticity and rawness, something more reminiscent of the roots of country music, than these attributes of Ms. Alexander would suggest just another glossy dud.

So what, then, is the verdict on Ms. Alexander’s Columbia debut, Honeysuckle Sweet? Is it as Sweet as candy, or does it Honeysuckle-suck? Well, the answer is a little bit of both, which is unfortunate for my headline-loving editor.

The content of Honeysuckle Sweet is certainly competent enough, with strong (if overly slick) production and catchy tunes. Each and every song on the album has the sort of chorus you can imagine grafting itself into your subconscious for at least several days.

Unfortunately, eight of the 11 songs also sound almost identical to one another, and all of those “catchy” choruses follow almost the exact same melodic structure. While it is a lively and sturdy enough model, it nonetheless wears itself out by the end of the album and causes the songs to gradually melt into each other.

The three exceptions, however, are all fairly delightful. “Unfulfilled” is the sort of sultry roots rock one could expect from Michelle Malone or early Melissa Etheridge, while “The Long Way” is a captivating if cliched story-song covering the standard country terrain of hardship, redemption, “warm beer and stale cigarette smoke.” And “Country Prayer,” the obligatory Christian-inflected closing tune, features genuinely heartfelt lyrics mapping out the protagonist’s rocky relationship with the Almighty.

One of the album’s key make-or-break elements is Alexander’s voice. Perennially bursting with yearning and passion, her vocal stylings are sure to impress certain listeners. Unfortunately, this reporter is not one of those listeners. Vocally, Alexander seems incapable of subtlety; she is always operating at full-blast, like a country Jessica Simpson.

Had she not already landed a major-label contract, she would have made an ideal contestant on Nashville Star. Imagine Kelly Clarkson recording a country album, and you basically have Honeysuckle Sweet. Whether or not that sounds appealing is up to you.

Contact Pop Arts reporter Jason C. LeRoy at [email protected].