The cover of Allison Moorer’s third album, Miss Fortune, bore a prominent sticker, claiming that absolutely no pitch correction or other voice-improving technology had been used in the album’s recording. Having been relegated to the fringes of country music, it was Moorer’s slap in the face to all of the genre’s would-be divas, precious few of whom—offhand, it’s a short-list that includes Trisha Yearwood, Patty Loveless, Alison Krauss, and Natalie Maines—can actually find a pitch without the help of ProTools and auto-tune. Moorer’s voice is a force to be reckoned with, one of the deepest altos in popular music since Etta James’s and with the slowest, sexiest vibrato since Dusty Springfield’s. At her best, there aren’t many singers recording today who can touch her.
So to hear Moorer’s pristine voice heavily distorted through a vocoder on “Work To Do,” the opening track of Getting Somewhere, triggers a horrifying kind of cognitive dissonance from which the album never recovers. That Moorer’s songwriting—which attained remarkable depth and grit on her previous outing, 2004’s devastating The Duel—is wildly uneven doesn’t help. While The Duel and her other essential recording, 2000’s The Hardest Part, were difficult albums that, like so many of the genre’s best albums, traded in death, grief, and heartbreak, Getting Somewhere is a strictly upbeat affair. Even on the kiss-off of “Work To Do” and the woman-on-the-verge narrative of “How She Does It,” Moorer’s sense of joy is palpable.
Now, to fault an artist for being happy, obviously, is an unsupportable line of criticism; the image of the suffering, starving artist isn’t productive in and of itself. That said, the album suffers from the disconnect between Moorer’s delivery and the quote-unquote content of her songs, and in her choice of Nashville rebel and all-purpose hellraiser Steve Earle as the album’s producer. Like her older sister, Shelby Lynne, Moorer has never recorded two consecutive albums with similar styles. Miss Fortune, for instance, was predominantly an album of blue-eyed soul, sounding more like a follow-up to I Am Shelby Lynne than to the stone country of her own The Hardest Part. The Duel was an album of gritty, Neil Young-style folk-rock, which is certainly the kind of thing Steve Earle could run with. Instead, the bulk of Getting Somewhere is summery, polished adult pop that wouldn’t sound out of place on the radio between singles by Jewel and Daniel Powter.
The problem isn’t that Moorer can’t sell this sound convincingly (over the course of her career, she’s proven that she really can sing anything); it’s that so much of the album shares Jewel’s or Powter’s vapid, content-free form. While “How She Does It” and the nervy “New Year’s Day” are strong additions to Moorer’s catalogue—and it’s worth noting that, great an interpretive singer as she could be, she writes or co-writes all of her own material—they’re followed by the hyperglycemic sentiment of “Where You Are,” a song so god-awful (the chorus: “I’ll be right by your side/Just forget space and time/You’ll see it doesn’t matter near or far/Right next door or to the stars/My heart’s already where you are”) that it might come off as ironic if “Fairweather” and “If It’s Just For Today” weren’t insipid in the exact same way. That Moorer claims, “I can hear myself growing by leaps and bounds from the time I wrote the first song to the time I finished the last one,” is almost enough to suggest that cognitive dissonance is the album’s recurring theme.
Despite some hit-or-miss songwriting (on Miss Fortune and Alabama Song, that is), Moorer’s albums have always been worth a listen simply because of her voice. With her voice too often processed or layered in too many competing harmony lines, Getting Somewhere is the first of her albums that not even her vocals can save. While it isn’t as immediately striking as a “career-killer” as was her sister’s disastrous Love, Shelby, this one’s still some kind of a nightmare, the first troubling misstep on Moorer’s journey. One hopes that she takes the album’s last line, “I have to believe I’m getting somewhere,” as a challenge rather than a pat on the back.