Bob Grez,
Ain't Plain Country
(self-produced, 2000)

Ain't Plain Country is something of a misnomer, since this album is solidly country. It's Bob Grez's first album, and an enjoyable debut. Grez has a pleasant voice, and the accompaniments are nicely done. This is traditional country focusing on traditional country themes, but without much of a twangy edge.

There are songs, though, that would have benefited from more edginess. When the overall sound is pleasant and rather upbeat, the contradiction with sad and bitter lyrics is unsettling. It doesn't sound like the polka approach, which takes a relentlessly upbeat approach to misery; it's just a bit off. It's similar to the lyrics; they're fine, but it sounded to me like a bit more work could have made them great.

I'd love to hear "My Life Is Like a 100 Country Songs" sung by, perhaps, Johnny Cash. His harsher voice would be a better match for the lyrics than Grez's pleasant tone. The song, an affectionate parody of country themes, begs for more musical parody (although it's fun as it is). "Pickin' On Me Mama" is a funny song about a disapproving mother-in-law. "Good Ol' Country Boys and Girls Do Love Good" is lively, and with some of the best lyrics on the album.

The problem with the traditional themes is that one needs to give them a twist to make them fresh, and Grez often doesn't do enough of that. "Split It Down The Middle" has a theme similar to the recent country hit "Chain of Love," in which favors are repaid not directly, but by passing the benefits on to others. "Split It Down The Middle" isn't tied up in as neat a closed cycle as "Chain of Love," and I liked the way Grez tied it to parenting, although I wish he hadn't been quite as heavy-handed.

The love songs are often charming. "Country Waltzin' With You" is the best -- a longing look at a romance existing only in dreams. "Falling Apart Over You" is a sweet song about a new love. "Do You Still?" wonders about an old romance, and if it still might continue, while "Will I Forget I Love You?" knows it's over. "Lovin' You Every Now and Then" is somewhere in the middle, with a sporadic love. "Can't They See That I Love You" takes a personal view of a love that meets with disapproval from others, and it's strengthened by offering no details about why some are disapproving (although it's definitely heterosexual).

Grez's voice is better suited to the sweet songs than the bitter. In "Hey Mister, Take Care of My Kids and My Wife," neither his voice nor the arrangements sound either anguished or embittered enough to fit the situation. "Why Do You Wear Our Ring on Your Middle Finger?" and "Found Myself a Substitute" could use more edge, too. "Found Myself a Substitute" is another strong song, where the lyrics are declaring an independence from an old love that the fact of the song seems to be contradicting. It's a good setup, and I wish the music supported it more fully.

If Grez's music sounds like something you'd like, I recommend beginning with Still a Cowboy, his second album. If you've bought that and liked it, though, you'll also enjoy Ain't Plain Country. Grez is a talented writer and performer, and getting better -- I look forward to his third album. I hope he takes some more risks on it, in both his lyrics and his arrangements

[ by Amanda Fisher ]