After spending the last 10 years on Rounder Records, where she built up one of contemporary bluegrass music’s steadiest catalogues, Rhonda Vincent goes the indie route with Taken. Establishing her own record label and then building her own recording studio and production team, Vincent uses Taken as an opportunity to prove her skill in managing every aspect of her career. It’s telling that the album is perhaps Vincent’s strongest and most confident record to date.
While albums like All American Bluegrass Girl and Good Thing Going allowed Vincent to shine as a first-rate vocalist and bandleader, those albums suffered from middling, predictable song choices. Bluegrass may be a genre that encourages that kind of conservatism, but Vincent has always been at her best when she takes some calculated risks. On Taken, she has chosen a few songs that eschew conventional, literal-minded narratives. “In the Garden by the Fountain,” on which Dolly Parton provides a lovely high harmony vocal, turns on some carefully selected, evasive images, and she offers up a spirited cover of “Tonight My Baby’s Coming Home,” sounding believably hard-up as she waits for her truck-driving husband to return.
Vincent has always been a tremendous singer, with a timbre and powerful sense of phrasing that recall the great Connie Smith. But she’s rarely put together a complete album of material that’s worthy of her voice, and Taken is as close as she’s come. “When the Bloom Is Off the Rose,” a lilting meditation on the long-term prospects for love, shows off her gift for restraint, while “The Court of Love” gives her the chance to cut loose on a bitter kiss-off song. The only real misstep is the cloying “You Must Have a Dream,” which sounds like the worst of the American Idol winners’ coronation songs and on which Vincent is joined by a choir of tone-deaf children.
Fortunately, “You Must Have a Dream” is the only track on which the execution is poor. Backed by her exceptional band, the Rage, Vincent has rarely sounded so confident as a bandleader, and she inspires the Rage to some of their strongest performances. The traditional gospel cut “God Is Watching” is the album’s standout. Vincent and the Rage give the song an unexpected, blues-inflected arrangement that surprises for its depth and its departure from pure bluegrass conventions. With those kinds of risks, Taken suggests that Vincent’s independent phase could be the richest of an already acclaimed career.