The majority of LeAnn Rimes's Lady & Gentlemen consists of covers of well-known country hits, most of which were originally recorded by iconic male artists. If that concept wants for originality (Tanya Tucker's excellent My Turn took a similar approach back in 2009), it's nonetheless one that Rimes and her producers, Vince Gill and Darrell Brown, approach thoughtfully. Rimes extends a degree of empathy to the nameless "her" in George Jones's "He Stopped Loving Her Today," and giving the final refrain of Waylon Jennings's "Good Hearted Woman" an unexpected first-person POV is an effective touch, proving that the gender-swapped concept is more than just a simple gimmick.
As she demonstrated on her last album, Family, Rimes is capable of putting considerable thought into her vocal performances, rather than just belting and caterwauling her way through songs as she did earlier in her career. To that end, one of the strongest cuts on Lady & Gentlemen is a reinterpretation of her breakthrough hit, "Blue." Gill and Brown bring in first-rate bluegrass band the Time Jumpers to provide backing on the track, and the traditional country arrangement makes the song sound like even more of a genre classic than it did in its original form. Rimes still doesn't sound a thing like Patsy Cline, but her new rendition of "Blue" is a shining example of how she's become a singer of real depth.
Her version of Gill's "When I Call Your Name" takes the most interpretive liberties of any of the songs on the album, turning what was a nearly perfect modern country ballad into a '70s-style soul number. Rimes's attempts to affect an R&B style have fallen flat in the past, but her reading of Gill's signature tune is heady and thoughtful. Genre purists may bristle at first, but it's a reinterpretation that speaks both to the quality of the song and to Rimes's powerful singing. A jazz-inflected reading of Tennessee Ernie Ford's "16 Tons" works nearly as well, impressing for Rimes's restraint as much as for its clever arrangement.
Unfortunately, not all of the album's risks are so productive. A sped-up version of John Anderson's "Swingin'" doesn't allow Rimes to use the richest tones of her voice, as she skews more than a bit nasal as she struggles to keep pace with the breakneck tempo. More problematic are the original songs on the album, which simply aren't of the same quality as the songs Rimes chose to cover. "Crazy Women" boasts a couple of well-turned phrases and is well-produced, but its lyrical hook ("Crazy women are made by crazy men") falls completely flat. Rimes delivers a lovely, subtle performance on "Give," but the song lacks the depth of insight that "What I Cannot Change," the standout track on Family, proved she's capable of writing.
A few missteps notwithstanding, though, Lady & Gentlemen continues Rimes's run of top-notch contemporary country albums. What's perhaps most fascinating about the album is how its overarching concept of subverting the genre's gender politics relates to the misogynistic double standard the industry has applied to Rimes's personal life. During the past two years, Rimes has become better-known for her tabloid-baiting antics and mouthy Twitter feed than her actual music, and the negative publicity she's courted during that span has alienated many in the conservative world of country music. That's a shame, really, because Rimes's last couple of albums have been fantastic, and Lady & Gentlemen finds the singer taking real risks and making better music than many of her contemporaries.