The reviews are in, and most critics agree: The best way to begin a thorough exaltation of The Stand-In, the second album from 25-year-old Nashville singer Caitlin Rose, is to invoke its first verse.
"So long ago my radio heart got broken," Rose coos, backed by waves of electric guitar and a polite backbeat. "Now the songs I wanna hear they never play."
Rose's gambit is a brave one. The daughter of two major Music City players, she criticizes the modern country industry from within before doing her best to offer 11 alternatives during the album's subsequent 37 minutes. And in the last month, three major outlets—Spin, American Songwriter and Pitchfork Media—have bitten that bait, leading acclamations of The Stand-In with that lyric and its requisite conclusion: Rose sings the sorts of songs you can't hear on the radio anymore, because the radio doesn't play songs this good or honest or open. Or, as Spin's Nate Cavalieri raved, "Her old numbers are the best new ones we've heard in a long time."
Most of Rose's press, however, seems to key on aspects of her personality that The Stand-In doesn't actually deliver. Rose came of musical age in Nashville's indie and garage rock underbelly, and members of the city's strangely rough-and-tumble The Deep Vibration form the musical backbone of her record. Her champions consistently paint Rose as some wild-eyed and subversive rebel, who smokes and sings, gets fucked up and writes tunes with her best buds, covers the Arctic Monkeys and listens to the Mountain Goats.
But that brazen punk picture of Rose seems to exist only outside of her music's deferential retrospection. Aside from its slick and meticulous production, The Stand-In finds Rose serving as a modern surrogate for songs of the past and little else. She's a great singer and canny writer, but The Stand-In mostly affirms aged songwriting tropes. She sashays through the lovelorn Dixieland of "Old Numbers." She purrs over the string-laced soft rock of "Golden Boy" with the same Spector-sized naiveté of Zooey Deschanel. As Britain's The Telegraph recapitulated, "The Stand-In betrays all manner of influences: Seventies AOR, indie, folk, Sixties girl-pop, Southern soul, ragtime jazz." Rose mostly tries to re-create the songs that you might've once heard on the radio, not reinvent or even radically revise them.
Strangely, the trio of reviews that leads with the challenge issued by opener "No One to Call" never mentions "Everywhere I Go," the late-album highlight that actually makes good on Rose's futurist nostalgia. Sentimental piano and deep drum thuds cut through a distant drone, forming a platform for Rose to sound completely like herself. "I could sail across the ocean to the shoreline of Japan," she opens, maintaining the speak-sing aplomb in the chorus—"No matter where I go/ There I am."
Within these three minutes, the same whining pedal steels and cascading harmonies that tie most of The Stand-In to its city of origin become the backdrop of a revisionist who has learned from the past but is aiming forward. It's the one moment on The Stand-In where Rose actually funnels her image into something clearly new, something built from the blocks of her hometown but foreign to its country music skyline.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Modern thorn."