Loretta Lynn has just made the best record of her career. So has Jack White. Unfortunately, they're different records, and when you pop in Van Lear Rose (Interscope), you're forced to listen to both simultaneously. Placing the spunky voice of the Old Sane America under the care of post-alterna-whatsit's most brilliantly neurotic guitarchaeologist was an iffy proposition from the get-go, and Van Lear Rose is a jarring mash-up ("Seven Fist City" maybe, or "You Ain't Woman Enough to Fall in Love With a Girl"), a clash of sensibilities so disorienting I'd call the results Brechtian if I didn't suspect I was just looking for any excuse to say "Verfremdungseffekt."
Unfair comparison alert: Listen to an earful of Lynn's classic tracks and, an hour later, see how few standout instrumental bits you'll recall, aside from the occasionally distracting male chorales. Owen Bradley's understated production was the ideal match for a woman too much herself to put on archetypal airs, who had no truck with either the melodramatic swoops of glop-pop or the gothic strains of mountain music. No reason White should emulate or even acknowledge those techniques, of course, but unless he's in the business of molding ingenues, a decent producer does consider his subject's strengths. Instead, White comes off as a high-school senior who's finally scored a date with the dream girl he's sighed over since seventh grade, then spends the whole night nervously talking about himself.
This doesn't necessarily mean he has nothing to say. The lovely, foreboding opening guitar passage to "Portland, Oregon" redeems the song's lowlife bluster, and the atmospherics running underneath the spoken-word reminiscence "Little Red Shoes" highlight a darker side of poverty omitted from "Coal Miner's Daughter." Lynn, to her credit, often acts as though nothing were amiss, rolling easily through "Story of My Life," or nimbly adapting her voice to unfamiliarly rockish environs on the title track. But the cornball clap-along "High on a Mountain Top" is embarrassing, "God Makes No Mistakes" goes over like an angel with lead wings, and the blues-chug of "Have Mercy" is a Yeah Yeah Yeahs facsimile Polly Harvey herself wouldn't be able to pull off.
Reviewing Van Lear Rose, Rolling Stone's Rob Sheffield hopefully recalled the explosive records Muddy Waters made late in his career with Johnny Winter. Skeptics are more likely to mention Elvis Costello and pals embalming Solomon Burke a couple years back. But in fact, the obvious comparison is the most apt—Rick Rubin hobbling Johnny Cash's sense of rhythm on American Recordings by stripping him down to an acoustic strum. White performs a similar disservice: Suffocating Lynn within intricate, humid fantasias, he's fashioned what one of my few fellow dissenters calls "the record he'd make for Meg if she could sing."
One of the few other Van Lear Rose agnostics of my acquaintance, Chris Lorraine, half-jokingly wondered, "What is Loretta Lynn doing on this Neko Case record?" a question I remembered as Carolyn Mark and the New Best Friends' The Pros and Cons of Collaboration (Mint) got me wondering, "Why is this Neko Case record so much fun?" Mark's an Official Friend of Neko—the two perform together as the Corn Sisters—with a similarly smooth, full cabaretpolitan sweep. But the accurate yet relaxed playing of the New Best Friends is a sharp contrast to the stylized moodiness of Case's records. Even when a low, ominous piano interlude pokes momentarily up through the opening swing instrumental, it's a lark, a playful show of dexterity, rather than a feint at something darker.
As for Mark—well, cavils out of the way first. Her relationship lyrics can be slight, she can't always brush away some undesirable Natalie Merchant residue from her upper register, and the fantasy life limned on the dream-crush song "Vincent Gallo" suggests a regrettable spiritual deficiency. So perhaps does "The Wine Song," which equates a gent's masculinity with his choice of alcohol, but it's good for a laugh, as, on a simpler level, is the understated "Hangover" ("Oh, the pain, oh the pain, oh the horror and pain"). And drunkenness is Mark's great subject—not the abstract pursuit of oblivion so many songwriters rely on, but the resulting altered perceptions and feelings. The way scattered details gradually surface on the boozy hookup number "Two Days Smug and Sober" rings truer than the straightforward pour- me-another of Lynn's topically similar "Portland, Oregon."
And, in general, drunkenness is a social matter for Mark, whether she's staggering through town with "Chantal and Leroy," the pair of fuckbirds she's temporarily crashing with, or viewing U.S. culture through liquor-blurred Canadian eyes on "Yanksgiving." Tossed together with a bunch of friends for the holiday, Mark drinks too much, is baffled by the images on TV ("Toby did a medley of his greatest hits/I said, 'Oh my God, Jon, can you believe this shit?'"), then unsnaps the top button of her pants and passes out musing, "I know it's America, but it sure is fun." Call it the New Weird America, a place where the mundane bizarreness of the present is reward enough for anyone who isn't obsessed with the past—and then put that piano player in touch with Loretta.
Carolyn Mark plays the Tractor Tavern with Kitchen Syncopators at 9 p.m. Sat., May 29. $8.