Karen Peck and New River
Good to Be Free
Spring Hill, 2005

A while back, I tried to sort out the strengths and weaknesses of Karen Peck and New River, only to discover a great deal in the group’s history, style, and management to be ambivalent about. “The tragic truth of KPNR,” I concluded, “is that the group seems self-exiled in the wilderness of their own unrealized ambition.” Even with my guard up for signs that I might simply be looking for what I was prepared to find in Good to Be Free, there’s not much in this latest offering to dispel my thesis about self-defeating tendencies.

First there’s the dearth of creativity in the song selection. Exhibit A: an embarrassing cover of the clichéd “One Day at a Time” (didn’t Christie Lane pretty much drive every last inch of mileage from this tune?). Franchise singers like Peck oughtn’t to cover tunes like “One Day at a Time” unless they’re aiming for a career like … well, Christie Lane. (And while we’re on the subject of Peck … honestly, she’s got to stop that breathy speak-singing thing she does. It’s really becoming an obnoxious affectation, all the more so because of how unnecessary it is if you have a voice like hers.) Second and related to the song-selection problem, the project is lyrically impoverished. Two songs built centrally around the idea of famines. Two songs mortgaged heavily to “touching”: “just a touch” in case, and “just one touch,” in the other. And two songs about leaning on Jesus. Is repetition passing for thematic unity these days?

The brightest spot in the project, to my ear anyway, is “I’m Gonna Get Up,” a nice upbeat tune featuring Devon McGlammery. Close behind is “Good to Be Free” and “Hold Me While I Cry” (take out the references to Jesus and the Lord here, and this croonable song could easily show up on a Clint Black or Reba McIntyre album, a Peck sings it just as well). But there’s too much fog and sameness in between these glimmers of brightness. We know Peck is a star singer. She really is. Which is why it’s too bad she continues to content herself with projects like this one - well sung and professionally produced but stylistically flatfooted and musically flaccid. Such contentedness is, one fears, going to keep her and her group perpetually on the edges of real greatness.

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