Having won their recording contract with Big Machine via the second season of CMT’s Can You Duet, and having already scored a handful of industry award nominations, country duo Steel Magnolia doesn’t lack for confidence on their self-titled debut. Comprised of real-life couple Meghan Linsey and Joshua Scott Jones, Steel Magnolia attacks the songs here with brio, displaying the swagger of seasoned pros and placing their considerable vocal talents front and center on almost every track. That forceful presence works in their favor, because the songs on Steel Magnolia aren’t the least bit noteworthy.
Whereas most country duos gravitate toward a single lead vocalist, Jones and Linsey and producer Dann Huff arrange most of the songs on Steel Magnolia using call-and-response structures that give equal billing to both singers. Though both are prone to some show-offy, affected vocal flourishes, Jones and Linsey prove themselves capable of carrying their songs with conviction. Linsey uses her raspy alto to turn in a bawdy performance on opener “Ooh La La,” making the song’s otherwise rote attempt at seduction work better than it probably deserves to, while Jones’s husky baritone elevates the duo’s breakout hit, “Keep on Lovin’ You,” by bringing a real sense of passion to its pedestrian love story.
As co-writers of seven of the album’s 12 songs, Jones and Linsey can be blamed for the weak material. Though they didn’t write the god-awful, maudlin “Just By Being You (Halo and Wings),” their names are on the underwhelming “Edge of Goodbye” and “Last Night Again,” and the majority of their songs want for first-person details to give them a real point of view. Lori McKenna’s “Bulletproof” isn’t as catchy as the La Roux hit of the same name, but it’s one of the better songs here, as is “Homespun Love,” a cover of a song from Keith Urban’s days with the Ranch. Moving forward, Jones and Linsey would be well advised to exercise their relatively good taste in outside material, rather than allowing their own banal songwriting to sink them for good.
Dann Huff’s predictably too-slick production also does the duo no favors. The pounding drum-machine backbeat and wailing electric guitars on “Not Tonight” suggest Coldplay as much as any country influence, and the effect is as deadening here as it was on Sugarland’s wretched The Incredible Machine. The everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach he brings to “Rainbow” is at odds with the song’s fairly straightforward conceit and draws too much attention to itself. In closing the album with “Glass Houses,” the strongest of Jones’s co-writes, and in giving the song a stripped-down, unfussy production, Huff highlights much of what goes wrong on Steel Magnolia.