Just as Adam Lambert did during the eighth season of American Idol, season-nine contestant Crystal Bowersox did her damnedest to prove that a performer with an unconventional and potentially hard-to-market POV could succeed on one of music’s most visible stages. And like Lambert before her, Bowersox finished her Idol run in second place, coming up short against a bland, forgettable frat boy with middling guitar chops. Where Lambert embraced the show’s tacky spectacle and ran with it because it worked for his glam impulses, Bowersox was more of a coffeehouse folksinger who often seemed uncomfortable with the show’s intense spotlight and emphasis on pop bombast. Her debut album, Farmer’s Daughter, is consistent with the singer-songwriter’s public persona, then, because it finds her attempting to rise above production values that are fundamentally at odds with what she does well.
An intuitive singer with an effortless, easy sense of phrasing and a timbre that splits the difference between Sheryl Crow and Ani DiFranco, Bowersox is blessed with an exceptional voice. She brings a lived-in, authentic perspective to songs like “Holy Toledo” and “Speak Now,” conveying their narratives with conviction and authority. It’s the richness and ragged soulfulness of her vocal tone that made Bowersox such an anomaly on Idol, and those aspects of her voice shine through here. Even if her choice to cover Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” is a bit strident and on the nose as far as building her image, she sings the song gorgeously and with real sensitivity.
Unfortunately, not all of the songs on Farmer’s Daughter are as well-written. It’s no surprise whatsoever that “Hold On,” originally tagged as the album’s first single until Bowersox insisted on going with the title track, is utterly banal, considering that it was co-written by Kara Dioguardi and Nickelback’s Chad Kroeger. As a songwriter herself, Bowersox doesn’t always outshine the hired guns in terms of song construction: The hook on “Kiss Ya” is awkward and unmemorable, and “Mine All Mine” is undermined by warmed-over imagery.
What her songwriting lacks in polish, it generally makes up in sincerity and candor. The title track, which recounts her tumultuous childhood in unflinching detail, and “Mason,” a co-write with her husband, Brian Walker, both showcase Bowersox’s real potential. It’s unfortunate that even the album’s best songs are undone by David Bendeth’s fussy, overworked production. On both “Ridin’ with the Radio” and “Hold On,” Bowersox has to shout to be heard over arrangements that are bloated with excessive layering of harmonica, Hammond organ, and heavy drum-machine backbeats. “Lonely Won’t Come Around” and “On the Run” are marred by too-busy production that belies their simple, straightforward narratives.
Given that her songwriting emphasizes first-person narration and direct language, it would be perfectly logical to market Bowersox to a contemporary country audience. There are enough rootsy flourishes in Farmer’s Daughter‘s studio-slick brand of adult pop such that the title track and “Holy Toledo” would fit seamlessly alongside recent singles from Keith Urban, Lady Antebellum, and Zac Brown Band on country radio. That may not have been the niche Bowersox had envisioned for herself, but what troubled the judges on Idol was the fact that she’s never going to be a pop star in a market dominated by acts like Lady Gaga, Ke$ha, and Katy Perry. Farmer’s Daughter confirms that such concerns were well-founded, but it also confirms that Bowersox has the goods to stick around long after most other Idol alumni have reached their sell-by dates.