Lisa O'Kane,
It Don't Hurt
(New Light, 2007)

Californian Lisa O'Kane is better known in Europe, where she has a successful career as a country singer, than she is in her native land. This is her third album, her first for New Light, and presumably a bid for a bigger American audience. It's also the first of hers I've heard.

It Don't Hurt sounds in many ways like a more commercial, more contemporary version of the great records Emmylou Harris (whom O'Kane acknowledges as a large influence) was cutting in the 1970s. Harris's example had much to do with the generation of country music's last -- as in not just "most recent" but, probably, "final" -- golden age, the New Traditionalism movement of the 1980s. In those days the records suddenly got a lot more interesting than they had been during Nashville's preceding enthusiasm, the irritating "urban cowboy" fad. Fiddles replaced violins, and acoustic guitars and mandolins were pushed to the front of the mix, while rhythm sections were propelled by engaged, attention-paying humans. The vocals were set in arrangements spare enough to fit in your living room. Among the finest bands from that era, by curious coincidence, were the O'Kanes, headed by Jamie O'Hara and Kieran Kane.

It's hard to believe, but in those days that sort of thing got played on mainstream country radio, and you could go to your local record store and happily buy commercial country albums. These days, I have a hard time remembering when I last purchased anything -- they call it "product" now, with reason -- by a current Nashville star.

I'm sure if O'Kane wanted to, she could go to Nashville and take a shot at the big time. In the past 15 or 20 years nearly everybody who succeeds -- Garth Brooks being the only exception to come immediately to mind -- looks like a model or a soap-opera star. The stunningly beautiful O'Kane would have no problem there. (Recently a friend and I were reflecting on how much better country was when performers with made-for-radio faces were creating most of it.) O'Kane is also, however, a committed artist who wants to do her music her way, which is as a sort of neo-New Traditionalist, if not at the cost of relegating herself forever to the purgatory of cult -- which is to say -- act. It Don't Hurt amounts to an impressive effort at balance, where intelligent country-pop (which in stupider, more bloated arrangements might be suitable for hot-country airplay) is mixed with elements of slick rockabilly (as in the pulse-quickening opener, an O'Kane original, "Ain't Done Nothin', " pushed by Albert Lee's propulsive electric lead guitar) and modern folk (John Prine's "Speed of the Sound of Loneliness," an excellent choice in a movingly desolate treatment).

In her commercial prime, Linda Ronstadt fused country, pop, rock and folk into a cohesive contemporary-roots sound. These days, in a broadly comparable vein, Rhonda Vincent blends traditional bluegrass with Southern pop. Though bluegrass is among O'Kane's influences, hers is not in any sense a bluegrass recording. Still, Vincent could take exactly the material O'Kane is using and make something of it. Grounded yet marketable music is what this is, and from the evidence of Hurt, O'Kane knows how to get it done. She's one more reminder of something it's easy to forget: that pop-accented country doesn't have to be inane pap.

review by
Jerome Clark

8 December 2007

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